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Michael Edmonson

On days I wasn’t working downtown, I worked eight-hour shifts as a student desk aide over the summer. It was pretty wild: A lot of people don’t know this, but you aren’t free to leave to use the bathroom. You have to call into the Public Safety base and wait for an officer to come relieve you. It’s usually not so bad: You feel the first inkling, you call the base, and 20 minutes later, you’re taking your 15-minute break. But over the summer, the staff is smaller and overworked. The relief officer is walking around in the hot sun, all over campus, all day long, giving 62s (bathroom breaks) and 63s (lunch breaks). That can really start to add up—especially if all you had was coffee for breakfast and tacos for dinner the night before.

Still, it’s a good job. I recommend the student desk aide position to anyone who’s eligible for work-study. The pay is great, and it’s easy to work into your schedule if you plan for it. I keep the same time slot open on the weekdays—so I can fit in a shift between classes—and they put me in whatever dorm they need. Recently I’ve been in Wallach a lot, but I’ve spent the most time in EC and Wien. You can also do your homework, if you stay attentive, or read or just sit there.

There’s something interesting about the job, too. I get very used to seeing people’s faces. To the point where, for the students who are more on schedule, I can even start to expect people home at a certain time—not intently, just if I happen to notice the clock. What’s more is that some people are actually super nice to me, and I get to have conversations with people that I usually wouldn’t get the chance to interact with otherwise. We’ll compliment each other’s outfit. We’ll ask about each other’s day. And it’s nice. I love pleasant little conversations, small talk, compliments, and checking in on other people. It makes my shift way more fun and exciting.

To those of you who are kind to me, I appreciate you. And to all of you who have places to be, or are feeling pretty tired, or just don’t want to talk to me—but treat me with cordiality and politeness—no worries. No beef.

But some of you are real dicks, huh? To those who feel the need to test my patience and get upset with me for things that are out of my control: Well, I would be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy informing you that, no, you cannot enter the building without being signed in—no matter how bad you have to pee.

But I’m just one of very, very many people on staff—and I don’t even work full time now. The larger point is that there are people on this campus all day, every day, working as hard as they can to make sure you have a safe and comfortable living and learning environment. Public safety, dining staff, housing officials—these people are doing a service, but people treat them like part of the campus itself.

I got to know that side of Barnard/Columbia this summer, the side that comes to campus every day to pay the bills and look after their loved ones. I’d arrive at eight o’clock, and at nine, the contractors, facilities staff, and cleaning staff would begin to arrive. We got to know each other by name. We asked about each other’s weekends and families. It was pleasant, uplifting, and energizing.

Yet I’ve seen students display enormous levels of disrespect in their interactions with people who are simply doing their jobs. Last year I saw a CC boy call a dining staffer a bitch to their face. The best part? There was no reaction at all—face stayed stone cold—and the CC boy was left feeling like the deflated shithead he is. I see him on campus all the time, and I think about that every time I see him. People are watching, in case you didn’t know. People see how you act. If you watch closely, you can really tell the difference between classmates who have served and those who have been served.

And you’ve probably heard this before, but we need to be reminded of it sometimes: You don’t have to be everybody’s best friend, or their friend at all, but you do have to treat them with respect. And I don’t know, I think showing respect means asking “Hi, how are you?” or at least taking out your damn headphones. And you better say thank you to the lunch lady.

The author is a junior in Columbia College studying philosophy, as well as an associate editorial page editor for Spec.

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dining staff kindness privilege work-study manners
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