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Seen but not heard: Employees who keep Ohio State going

Barbara Benson, known affectionately as Ms. Barb, poses for a picture in between tasks on the 10th floor of Park-Stradley Hall. Credit: Casey Cascaldo | Photo Editor

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.

Ms. Barb uses a cleaning device to spray down the floors in Park-Stradley Hall. Benson said she’s supposed to use the device once a month, but chooses to use it every two works to ensure the floor is extra clean. Credit: Casey Cascaldo | Photo Editor

“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.”

11 comments

  1. Thanks to The Lantern for highlighting the tremendous work of these truly unsung campus heroes! We appreciate all that they do for our students.

  2. OSU Class of 1992

    Absolutely! I still remember and talk about Pearl who worked in Houck House when I was there in Fall 1988 to Spring 1990. She was a always a positive presence in the building.
    And bonus shout out to the facilities staff who kept things running as well.

  3. Very nice article to highlight the hard work environmental services do on a daily basis. They’re much appreciated.

  4. These workers deserve as much respect as any administrator on this campus. It is a job that requires back breaking work, dealing with hostility from all ranks, and thankless invisibility and for far less pay than they earn. Thank you for this piece, Jasmine.

    Ms. Barb, we see you and will keep fighting to get you the raise you deserve! Thank you for taking such good care of us all.

  5. Thank you for sharing my Ms. Barb’s story! I remember our environmental services worker, Eddie, from the 1980s in Drackett Tower, always had a smile and laugh for us! Much gratitude for all the devotion and care that these employees put in their jobs to make our students feel at home! Cheers to all of you!

  6. This should be an ongoing series! You’ve gotta give love to the housekeeping and dining staff…they’re gggrrreeeat!

  7. Thank you kindly for this story about the environmental service workers at OSU. The campuses are communities; every person’s role adds value to the community’s health. While some may think these people are” invisible”, their work certainly is not.

    What would the campuses feel to you after one week without these folks? Hmmmmm. Imagine overflowing waste cans, dumpsters, spills, mud, garbage, toilets, sinks, soap dispensers, toilet paper, windows, floor mats, carpeting, snow, grass, weeds, branches, lights, ….

    When retiring from OSU after 31 years of service I included the 2 building environmental service workers in my retirement party invitation list and was happy to have them there to celebrate with me. Sadly, later one of my colleagues critically asked me, “WHO INVITES THE JANITORS TO THEIR RETIREMENT PARTY”?

    Perhaps we need more invitations to parties, graduations and special occasions. All of our roles matter.

    • I agree with you 100%. Unfortunately, the campuses still wouldn’t care. They probably would try to get over by unethical means. Also, I hope you cussed out your “colleague” who sent you that ignorant message.

  8. Thank you so much for sharing Ms. Barb’s story! She was the service provider in my residence hall my sophomore year and her commitment to a safe environment is real! As an out of state student there were plenty of times that homesick was all I felt but I would hear Ms. Barb’s voice every morning or run into her in either of the stalls on the floor and the pattern became familiarity and so much like home! I just think this whole piece is dope because a large portion of OSU’s unheard superhero’s are minority members in race and sex and they definitely keep campus going! My experience would not be the same without their work so anytime we pause to reflect and thank them is much deserved! Great read!

  9. Barbara was my housekeeper freshman year and was such a fantastic influence. I ran into her my senior year just before graduation and she still remembered my name. She is an absolute gem!

  10. Ms. Barb worked in Baker Hall East for a few months when I was in college. She was transferred to another building with little notice and then I didn’t see her anymore. Either way, I loved talking to her. Thanks, Ms. Barb, for being an amazing human being!

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