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In appreciation of those who work behind the scenes

in Op-Eds/Opinions by

Do we appreciate every member of the Swarthmore community enough? At Swarthmore, we embrace the Quaker values of inclusion, diversity, and responsibility. Amidst our celebration of those values, however, some members of Swarthmore community usually do not receive as much attention and appreciation as they deserve — people who work behind the scene, be it the Environmental Service Staff, dining services staff, Public Safety staff, ITS, and so on. I realized this after attending Learning for Life’s activity last week.

Last Wednesday, Learning for Life organized an activity where students shadowed the EVS staff for an hour from midnight to 1 a.m. Before the activity started, students and EVS staff showed up in Science Center Commons and introduced themselves to one another. Afterward, each student paired up with an EVS staff member to help the latter with their nightly routine. For me, I paired up with Bryan* whose Matchbox shift spanned from midnight until early morning. Bryan drove me to the Matchbox before explaining to me how the cleaning would proceed that night. He handed me a bucket of water mixed with soap and a piece of cloth. The instruction was rather simple: wipe everything people touch. At 1 a.m., everyone reconvened in Sci 181 to celebrate the friendship they had fostered. How does this story pertain to what I said earlier?

Attending this event taught me that as much as we proclaim to appreciate all the dedicated staff who work to maintain our campus, our actions sometimes suggest otherwise. Take my experience with Learning for Life for instance. That night, Matchbox was rather messy: chalk for weightlifting was scattered; battle ropes were mislocated; some plastic bags, which were supposed to be in the trash, were lying on the ground. Matchbox aside, classrooms sometimes have unfinished food boxes or cups of coffee even after classes have ended, which mean some students either forget to clean their stuff or deliberately leave their stuff behind for someone else to clean. While it matters that we appreciate people who work behind the scenes, it matters even more that we show our appreciation to them. Good intentions alone cannot change any outcome unless they are realized by action. Such effortless actions as putting used items into trash cans or keeping Sharples trays in their proper places can alleviate staff’s workload. Note that according to Swarthmore’s EVS website, EVS staff are responsible for “keeping campus facilities well managed.” They are not anyone’s housemaid.

Moreover, these staff members are central to daily operation at Swarthmore. Without their service, Swarthmore cannot operate smoothly. Because most items we see are clean and stay in their proper positions, we sometimes take them for granted, forgetting that neither the plates at Sharples nor the blackboards can magically clean themselves. Many people work behind the scenes to ensure such is the case. Even in rough situations, like when Swarthmore was struck by the snowstorm, the staff unfailingly provide their service to us. With this story in mind, an important question must be addressed: why do we sometimes act irresponsibly and add even more tasks to what EVS staff must finish every day? There are two main reasons.

The first reason is that humans are less considerate of people whom they do not personally know. This concept is called “deindividuation” in social psychology. To elaborate, deindividuation happens when people lose their self-awareness and self-identity as they gain more anonymity after blending into a social group. The larger the group is, the more anonymous one is and the less reserved one acts within the group. Cyberbullying and Internet trolls are some examples of what happens when people are deindividualized. Relating this concept to our undesirable behaviors on campus, Swarthmore’s community, as tight-knit as it is, is sufficiently large, which means we often cannot trace back to the people who perform certain actions. As a result, people who act irresponsibly can get away most of the time.

Another possible explanation lies in our attitude. Sometimes, Swarthmore students are so busy that they ignore what others are doing. For instance, when under pressure, some may try to save as much time as possible by delegating as many tasks to others as possible. In our case, they may deem putting food into trashcan a “non-essential” activity and therefore delegate their responsibility to EVS staff. Moreover, some people are accustomed to having their parents or their housemaids do everything for them. Unfortunately, people who work behind the scene are adversely impacted by such an attitude.

This type of attitude is unhealthy both to oneself and to one’s community. It is also imposing on other people and does not reflect well on Swarthmore as an institution. If the Swarthmore community upholds its inclusivity, responsibility, and commitment to benefit society, its members should first act responsibly by treating people who work behind the scene properly.

How can we then show our appreciation toward all the staff at Swarthmore? On a personal level, we can greet the staff or make small talk whenever we see them. These interactions show the staff that we recognize and appreciate their service to us. Chanoot Sirisoponsilp ’19, a coordinator of Learning for Life, explained that one of Learning for Life’s primary goals is to humanize people who work behind the scenes and connect them to the student body. She explained to me that some Swarthmore students have a tendency to emphasize academics at the expense of social interactions with staff members.

“Given [Swarthmore students’] schedule, it’s difficult for students to bond with staff on a regular basis … But there really is no reason to not at least say hi or engage in small conversations with the EVS staff when they came to clean your hall or the dining services staff when they were replacing the hot water dispenser for you.”

Think of how small interactions with others can brighten your day. Your greetings can brighten theirs as well.

On a community level, there are many clubs which connect students with staff members. Learning for Life, for instance, organizes the EVS shadowing event every semester, hosts an end-of-year celebration, and brings members from different parts of Swarthmore together so that we can learn from and teach one another; hence, the name Learning for Life. Through these activities, the club aims to bridge the gap between students, staff, and faculty by highlighting how each person contributes to the overall community. The relationship between Meghan Kelly ’18 and Judy Gibson, one of the EVS staff, exemplifies this point. Both were matched by Learning for Life during fall 2015 because of their shared interest in staying physically active. Therefore, they started attending Matchbox together: while Judy was walking on one treadmill, Meghan was running on the adjacent one. Thanks to these interactions, both became so close to each other that they once celebrated Thanksgiving together at Judy’s home. Meghan noted that she appreciated every conversation she had with Judy during her years at Swarthmore because Judy “listens closely to everything [others] have to say, always keeping [others’] wellbeing in her mind.” Other clubs, if possible, should make an effort to connect with staff members as the latter can offer some fresh insights that may not be found among the general student body.

On an institutional level, Swarthmore should try to facilitate appreciation of staff members. Some suggestions include raising awareness of how each staff contributes to Swarthmore community, organizing events to encourage everyone to act more responsibly (read: clean your mess), and connect the staff members to the broader community. On Swarthmore’s Self-Study on Learning, Working, and Living — a study conducted during the 2014-2015 academic year to understand the campus climate at Swarthmore — many staff respondents reported that they did not have much opportunity to know faculty or students. One respondent also commented that “[Swarthmore] is very siloed, and unless you are willing to make significant efforts to form relationships outside your own silo, or even outside your own department, such relationships rarely form.” These responses clearly indicate Swarthmore should do better on this issue.

Many staff members work diligently behind the scenes to keep Swarthmore operating, yet fade from our dialogue about Swarthmore values. Never should this be the case. To them and their service we ought to be grateful.  

For those interested in hosting workshops for or connecting with staff members, please contact Chanoot Sirisponsilp ‘19 (csiriso1@swarthmore.edu) for further information.

*Name has been changed


The beauty of an unintelligible world

in Columns/Opinions/Swat Global by

I’ll never forget my first experience abroad, which was this semester. Exiting the plane for the first time, as I stepped into Hanoi, Vietnam, it was as if I had been transported to a whole new universe. Looking around me, I was mesmerized by all the signs in Vietnamese. Continuing on to a restaurant for dinner after the flight, I couldn’t help but notice that, for the first time, English was not the dominant language flooding my ears. Instead, I was in a crowded buffet room with people yelling syllables to me that resembled an old voice-over cartoon. The letters of the signs surrounding me were strung together in indecipherable units, although they were supposed to be words. Clearly, these units did not add any clarity to the situation.

As my time in Vietnam continued, it became clear that communicating with others was not going to hold the same meaning as it did in the United States. The first few days, when I needed to know where to get off the bus, I had to rapidly point at an address I had written and hope that someone would know my destination and nod at me when to get off. During lunch, I could only yell “an chay” (vegetarian) at the street vendor, and wait for my food to arrive with no idea what dish would be placed in front of me.

At first, I was terrified in Vietnam. Since I didn’t know the language, I felt like disaster could happen so easily. All I had to do was take the bus stop one street too far and find myself completely lost. All I had to do was misunderstand a social cue and I would find myself offending someone. If disaster occurred, I would have no idea how to remedy the situation since I had always relied on my voice.


But as time continued, I learned to navigate the city and realized just how powerful social connections and interactions could become, even without a common language. There’s something beautiful about living in a place where words suddenly begin to fail and observation becomes the greatest tool for understanding one’s surroundings. It’s as if the pressure of continuously asking questions or searching for a social connection through voice suddenly ceases. Instead of talking and diverting attention away from the physical environment, one is forced to simply observe and take in all that is happening around them.

There is so much beauty that can be missed if one is not paying full attention. For example, watching people on the bus every day, I realized that it is custom for younger people to stand up and give their seats away to elders. Not only did I find this such a beautifully nuanced and important part of the culture, but I also found myself able to replicate this norm on the bus because I had watched others do the same. Through observation in Vietnam, I counterintuitively started to feel more like I belonged. I learned to walk on the side of the road since the sidewalk is needed for motorbike parking and to use chopsticks with my right hand even though I am left-handed, because in Vietnam, using the left hand is just strange.

But beyond creating a new way of belonging, the loss of common language created whole new types of relationships for me, which I had never before had the honor of experiencing. For example, I lived with my host family who could speak limited English. We could not speak deeply about family history, values, or beliefs. Yet my best memories in Vietnam are those with my host mom and sister. I looked forward to meals together every night as  my host mom would prepare an “an chay” dish she’d be excited for us to try, and we’d all enjoy each other’s company at the table, laughing over facial expressions or bonding over how much we truly appreciated the food.

Looking back, it is impossible to capture how strong of a relationship I formed with my host family and how much I learned from Vietnam because of—rather than in spite of— not knowing the language. It is as if a whole new perspective of the world is gained through less talking and more observing, listening, and embracing. And this lesson shapes my view of academics on campus as well.

At Swarthmore, it is easy to get lost in attempting to speak the most in seminars or talking over people who have a different perspective. Yet perhaps the beauty of not communicating verbally is entering what is typically deemed the “introvert” world. As Susan Cain discusses in her book “Quiet,” there is “zero correlation between being the best talker and having the best ideas.” While it can feel natural to want to speak the most or fill the empty spaces in class discussions, space must be made for embracing the silence, observing the dance of everyday life, and listening to the sounds beyond the words. As I have discovered through not having the ability to speak my thoughts, often more can be learned from watching and listening than from anything I could articulate myself.

Now in Buenos Aires for the final aspect of my adventure, I am in a country where I don’t quite understand all of the language, yet I am also not completely lost. While I am happy to be able to communicate with those around me, I think I’ll also continue to embrace the lost part of myself a little more. By listening and observing before speaking, individuals can gain more perspectives and learn new insights.

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