On May 14, I was heading home at 9 p.m. after teaching my course at SBCC when I crossed paths with Vanessa Bechtel. She had a bright smile on her face, looking unusually perky for such a late hour. When I asked her why, she beamed: “Today the Campaign for Student Success has raised over a million dollars!”
Vanessa is the executive director of Santa Barbara City College Foundation, and she’s in charge of raising funds to support scholarship programs for low-income students; for direct college programs; for the purchasing of equipment for disabled students; and for childcare to allow low-income SBCC students who are parents to fully engage in their studies. Through her work, she has played a vital role in the success of many lucky students.
I have always admired Vanessa’s optimism, determination, and altruism. And when I talked to her that evening, I realized she probably has one of the most rewarding jobs in Santa Barbara.
Bechtel briefly put her philanthropic endeavors on hold to answer the Proust Questionnaire.
What is it you like most about your job?
I love our mission of supporting SBCC students through sustained philanthropy. Getting to see students’ lives transformed everyday thanks to the generosity of our local community — I simply can’t imagine anything as rewarding as helping others realize their dreams and live their potential. Just today, I heard a student share how she was a single mom at 14 and worked at McDonald’s for minimum wage, never envisioning more for herself. She is now graduating from SBCC and transferring to UC Berkeley to study pre-law. Her small daughter was beaming when she accepted her scholarship award!
The transformational support provided to these students transcends out to their families, siblings, children, colleagues, and friends. The generous support provided also has a strong positive effect on our local economy by producing a highly trained workforce. It’s wonderful ,and I meet the most amazing people through my work!
Who do you most admire?
Paul P. Harris, who was the founder of Rotary. Rotary is all about service above self and ethics in business. What Mr. Harris created has evolved into an organization with over 34,000 individual clubs all over the world committed to movements like the eradication of polio; clean water; and women’s rights. They are non-religious, non-political organizations committed to serving their local communities and the global community. I believe Rotary has become the most significant logistics operation for promoting world peace and transcending borders.
What is your motto?
Philanthropy begins at home. Give of yourself — your talents and treasures — and never hold back.
What is your idea of a perfect happiness?
I get happier as I age and am at my happiest when I am working on a challenge that will improve lives. Creativity and hard work shared with others who are committed to a common mission is my perfect happiness. When I have free time or am traveling, I enjoy myself, but what I love most about that time is the ideas that come during and after.
What is your greatest fear?
My greatest fear is spiders, but in answering this question I think I should fear something more profound. However, it is said that arachnophobes actually have a reduced risk of being bitten by spiders, which has curbed any motivation to conquer my fear.
What is your greatest extravagance?
Having just paid my first tuition bill for the USC Marshall Executive MBA program.
What is your current state of mind?
I feel focused, grateful, and reflective. I’m really enjoying the sun and slight breeze and am looking forward to going on a hike with my little dog and Jim, the love of my life.
What is the quality you most like in people?
I like people who believe that there is enough sunlight in the world for everyone to shine, and therefore are willing to celebrate and bring out the best in those around them. I believe great ideas come from the most unexpected places and that when we act from an open and trusting place, anything is possible.
What is the quality you most dislike in people?
I dislike power-seeking and controlling tendencies. I also dislike narcissism and fear-based decision making.
What do you most value in friends?
My friends are warm, caring people with creativity and vision. They support others and live their lives with good intentions and integrity. They also love to laugh, especially at themselves. I like people who don’t take themselves too seriously and are willing to try again when they fail.
What is your most marked characteristic?
I am resilient. I expect there to be setbacks in life, and so I’m not turned off by them, and because of this, I’m not afraid to ask for help. I’m sure my friends would agree that I need a lot of help in life and am so thankful for them — they constantly are there to support me, especially my amazing husband.
Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
“How fantastic!” I also most use the word “yes.” I actually have to practice saying “no.”
Which talent would you most like to have?
I really admire writers, especially those who write in their heads and have the patience to rewrite again and again. From the days of my violin playing, I know that practice makes perfect, and the trick is to be able to be so invested in something that you can do it again and again and find something new, exciting, and different each time.
If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
I recently studied boxing to help me get over my fear of conflict. We all take hits in life, and sometimes the objective is to just remain standing. Boxing is fun too!
What do you consider your greatest achievement?
I feel so lucky, and I am living a really amazing life. I think my greatest achievement is being comfortable with who I am and being able to go to sleep each night feeling good about myself and my intentions during the day.
Where would you most like to live?
Here in Santa Barbara, with regular visits to Tuscany. I also love Washington, D.C., and Cambria, California.
What is your most treasured possession?
My violin. It was made in 1787, and I worked so hard to purchase it when I was 13. I used to perform on the streets of San Francisco as a child and saved all my tips. When I went to buy my violin, I tried out hundreds and just fell in love with mine.
What / Who makes you laugh the most?
My wonderful husband. He makes me laugh all the time, and I love it when he sings — he’s just awful!
Which historical figure do you most identify with?
I love the quote by Eleanor Roosevelt, “A woman is like a tea bag — you never know how strong she is until you put her in hot water.”
On what occasion do you lie?
I honestly don’t understand this question (that’s a lie).