My favorite part of the day is eating at Leo J. O’Donovan Dining Hall, Georgetown University’s main dining location — not because of the food, but because of the people who work there. Every day, I see and interact with staff members at Georgetown, from Leo’s to the Leavey Center, who keep campus running like a well-oiled machine.
From those who begin cleaning dorms at dawn to those who serve our food, the staff never fails to greet us with a friendly smile. They are an essential component of our community, yet, after more than a year of living at Georgetown, I am still waiting to see many of my fellow classmates greet staff workers with kindness and respect. I am struck on a daily basis by the way many of my peers barely acknowledge the hardworking individuals who make our stay at Georgetown possible. All students must begin treating university staff with respect and gratitude as a first step toward addressing the larger issues of classism and racism within our community.
On the weekdays of my first year at Georgetown, I often saw a dear friend of mine, a member of the Leavey Center staff. She, just like me, is from Mexico, and is a lovely woman with a big personality, a great sense of humor and a shining smile. She is essential to keeping the Leavey Center clean, but tells me that most of the students she encounters are at best oblivious to her existence and at worst simply rude. Even though she works in one of the most crowded locations on campus, she rarely hears someone greet her.
A common feature of my interactions with Leo’s staff is the silence of the students in front of me in line, barely saying “please” and “thank you.” Georgetown students seemingly feel entitled to mock workers, be rude and make a mess, knowing that someone will clean up. It is not rare to overhear students complaining about the staff’s command of the English language, or their efficiency at their job, especially on social media outlets like Flok. This lack of respect is the lived truth for many workers on campus, from custodial employees to staff members at Leo’s. Their work goes unnoticed until something goes wrong.
In the larger scheme of things, saying hello to staff members appears to be a trivial request. There are more urgent issues to address, and some may even argue that saying hello is unimportant in comparison to the larger issues of classism and racism. But it matters a lot, because it offers basic human recognition and dignity. Acknowledging staff members as people is critical to creating the right conditions for their concerns to be heard and addressed, and listening is the first step for students to begin reflecting on the classism and racism deeply embedded in our community.
While the students’ attitudes towards staff members is a problem, it is important to acknowledge how the university’s administration also mistreats workers. Georgetown has an extensive and painful history of exploiting the community members who contribute to the university’s operations, including construction workers, staff members and student workers amid the COVID-19 Pandemic.
The Georgetown community, including both its administration and its students, claims to be actively addressing the university’s history of exploitation, yet continues to neglect and disregard those who keep Georgetown running. It is hypocritical to demand better working conditions and accountability from the administration, while we ourselves cannot even say “Hello, how are you?” to the kind, hardworking individuals who make our experience here possible. This is not an end-all solution, but rather the start of a working understanding of our collective actions.
I am not positing that all Georgetown students are ill-intentioned and should get to know all the staff’s private lives, but rather, I would like to turn our attention toward the way students approach those who make our stay at Georgetown possible: how we address them, listen to them and demand a better work environment for them from the institution.
Students must address all staff members with the respect and kindness they deserve. In my mom’s words, “if you want to be at the top of any organization or country you need to start by saying hi and getting to know those that keep everything running, those who keep our streets clean, our buses running, and our water flowing.”
Ulises Olea Tapia is a sophomore in the School of Foreign Service.