When Kara Renner returned to her dorm room after winter break, she felt homesick the minute she walked in the door. That’s where Barbara Benson came in.
Benson, a residence hall custodian, offered a warm welcome that made Renner feel like she had come home again.
“Ms. Barb walks out and screams, ‘Kara!,’ and she runs down the hall and gives me a huge hug,” Renner, a fourth-year in neuroscience, said. “That was so comforting.”
Benson is one of dozens of environmental services team members, also known as custodians, who work every day in the residence halls. They might be among the least-recognized members of the residence hall community, but their influence on students shouldn’t be underestimated.
“I always try to be like the mom,” Benson said. “When I come to work, I look at students as my kids.”
The environmental services team provides custodial services for 122 buildings across Ohio State’s main and regional campuses, but its presence is perhaps felt the most in the 49 residence halls on the main campus.
Students see them in the hallways, main lobbies and public areas every day — yet some might never notice they’re really there at all.
Perhaps the biggest issue staff members face is feeling underappreciated and rejected by students, Benson said.
“There are some students you try to talk to, and they just walk right past you,” Benson said.
While many might wonder why they even sign up for this job or why anyone would want to spend their lives cleaning up after hundreds of students every day, Benson said it’s because students depend on them to do just that: clean and create a safe environment.
“Without us, they couldn’t survive,” Benson said. “If no one was here to clean out those bathroom pods, they’d be living in filth.”
The motivation behind Benson’s cleaning is far greater than just a paycheck; she grew up in foster homes and never had the opportunity to go to college.
“I know college is a lot of hard work. I respect students as much because they’re in school trying to get an education,” Benson said. “It’s my job to make it easier.”
Their primary job is to keep the dorms clean, which is no easy task considering the number of students after whom they clean up.
Kenyutta Dumas, housekeeping manager of environmental services, said the team faces the problem of being short-staffed at times.
“When you have 1,100 students versus us 12 workers in the building, it’s hard. You can’t do it all sometimes,” Dumas said.
Despite these challenges, the staff members make it their goal not only to perform their job to the best of their ability, but also to create a comfortable home for students.
“We’re with them every day, so I want them to feel safe and I wouldn’t want to see anything happen to them,” Benson said. “We’re looking out for them.”
Simona Jasova, a second-year in international business and French, said “some people just look down on them,” solely because they are custodians.
“Sometimes students can make us feel like we’re just housekeeping, like we’re not human, we’re not educated, we’re just nothing,” Benson said, “I’m here for you, but I’m not your slave, I’m not your animal, and I want to be shown that respect.”
It can become even more overbearing for staff when students take advantage of the fact that it’s their job to clean up after them, for instance by throwing trash outside their room, spitting in the sink and not washing it out and not flushing after using the bathroom, Benson said.
Dumas said seeing these messes can deeply affect her staff emotionally.
“I see my staff proud of their work and then the next day they come to see the bathrooms clogged or all of the paper towels strung out,” Dumas said.
She said all it takes is a simple “thank you” — just a moment of their time — from students to boost their spirits and recognize the staff’s hard work.
Renner, who’s also a resident adviser for Park-Stradley Hall, said the environmental services team is an integral part of residence life.
“We work together to keep the floor clean, healthy and a respectable environment,” Renner said.
One of the biggest misconceptions students might have about custodians is that they’re just there to do their job and go home. The employees said there is far more to it.
“When I come to work, I clean it like I would at home,” Benson said. “I would want somebody to be there for my kids when they’re in college.”