Here at Barnard, and at the greater Columbia University, the grass is always tidy, the paving stones are always swept and the bathrooms are cleaner than any dorm bathrooms have a right to be. Labor is what makes this campus run.
I am here on a scholarship, without which I would absolutely not be able to afford tuition to this school. I am lucky that my parents are able to fund the portion of my tuition that loans and scholarships don't cover.
But not only does our campus run on labor; it runs on invisible labor. The women who clean our bathroom are in and out as quickly as possible, and usually apologize for the inconvenience while their hands are down our toilets with a bleach soaked scrub brush. The men who prune our trees bow their heads to avoid eye contact with the passing students who stride confidently and hurriedly to class.
Last Friday morning, our quad was littered, as it is at the end of every semester, with discarded notebook paper thrown out the windows at midnight, by celebrating students. It had rained overnight, and the brick walkways, carefully maintained gardens and terracotta roofs were all coated with a paper puree. Starting around 7:00 a.m. on Friday, three facilities workers could be seen with latex gloves scraping up the paper goop from our previous night's festivities. It's still not all gone, and they're still out there today, pulling gobs of wet paper off of the branches of the flowering plum trees they spent last week pruning.
Everyone knows that college is a very special time in your life in which you are allowed wonderful adult privileges with none of the adult responsibilities by which they are usually accompanied. We're young, we're carefree, and we're focused on getting an education (and partying) so we shouldn't have to worry, right?
Our self-indulgence is sustainable only because there is an entire staff of people employed to make up for all our carelessness. The reason why we have beautiful, plush fields to lie in when we skip class is because someone else has been delegated their upkeep. The reason we have the luxury of barfing in the elevator at midnight, but finding it pristine in the morning is because someone mops that floor with bleach in the wee hours until all that's left is the hilarious memory of debauchery. And the reason we get to have the exhilaration of throwing our papers out the window for fun, is because we know that hours before we're out of bed, workers will have stooped down on hands and knees and scooped up the mess for us.
This phenomenon speaks to something greater: the issue of major class stratification at Columbia and other Ivy Leagues. For kids who grew up with hired help in their homes, the backdrop of labor may not seem surprising. That's the lifestyle they are from, but it's not the one I'm from, so for me it's still a shock.
Gardens don't grow in geometric shapes, but you would never know that here, where labor is invisible. The kitchens of the dining hall are hidden, and the facilities workers themselves are often hidden by the hours they work. Not only should college students be free from actually performing the labor, apparently, we should be free from the concept that it's being performed at all. Our self-indulgence has no cost.
Keeping labor invisible only serves to reinforce the idea that workers are so unimportant as to be kept out of sight. After graduation, many of us will have to continue working to support ourselves alongside those prestigious internships we're hoping for. Others here haven't yet had a job, and probably won't for years. How do we reconcile living together when our experiences are so different?
In September, my advisor told me that "to be a competitive Columbia student, I would need to take five classes." I told him I didn't have time for that, with extracurriculars, and he told me to prioritize. Angry tears filled my eyes as I left his office. In his mind, extracurriculars for a Columbia student could only mean a capella rehearsals, not a paying job.
Columbia's student body is not homogenous, thank god. Our school does a wonderful job admitting smart, deserving students of many backgrounds and meeting their financial needs, and this has served to make class less visible on campus for better and for worse.
Facilities and service jobs are hugely important and they shouldn't be invisible or shameful. They are deserving of respect and gratitude, as are the people who work them. Facilities staff run this campus and enable us to live the carefree lifestyle we associate with college. A single day's boycott would bring this campus to its knees in waste and chaos, something that none of us recognize frequently enough, myself included. Open your eyes to the forces that shape your world and you might be surprised at what goes on backstage."
A longer version of this post was originally published here on the author's blog.