Every year, the University of Michigan proudly welcomes in close to 6,000 young new students, full of hope and excitement about this new chapter of their lives. It is true that college is a great time for so many young people, and some will always remember it as the “best years of their life,” yet college is undoubtedly a hard time when it comes to learning the big lessons of life. For so many of us, it is our first taste of true independence. We must learn to function on our own as adults. The University tries to incorporate teaching moments on the macro level through first year seminars on diversity and inclusion, and on the micro level in the classroom, as students get their first real taste of having to be accountable on their own for class attendance and time management.
However, there are still some big areas of adult life that take many freshmen much longer to grasp. It is striking to see how many students don’t say “excuse me” when they run past you on the street, don’t hold the door for you on the way into a coffee shop and don’t clean up their mess at restaurants or in the dining halls, especially in the first few months of a new school year. It seems many students of this generation, upon coming to college for the first time, lack an awareness of those around them and therefore an ability to be kind and empathetic.
I see this most prevalently as a dining hall worker. For the past three years, I have worked at Mary Markley Residence Hall’s dining hall, used mostly by freshmen. It is shocking how many students will simply throw used napkins on the ground, spill drinks on tables and floors without cleaning them up or ignore signs asking them not to remove dishes from the dining hall. Additionally, many treat the dining hall employees with a “Regina George” sort of mockery; as if we are all Cinderella and they are the step-sisters. They wait impatiently for food, engage in pointing and laughter as you walk by carrying a cleaning bucket and rag and often leave plates and cups on the tables assuming it is your job to clean them up.
While this can often seem blatantly rude and sometimes malicious, what I have learned is most of these freshmen just simply aren’t aware of how their actions affect, not only the dining hall employees but, the overall dining hall environment. It seems they truly don’t consider the students who will be coming in after them to eat or the employees — fellow students — who will end up staying late to clean up their unnecessary messes.
It is important to note not all students are like this. There are many kind and courteous students I meet every day, yet the proportion of students who are not is still too large. I have thought a lot about what contributing factors may have led to this cluelessness and one thing stands out to me: There is no one here to clean up after them anymore.
It’s true some of us did our fair share of chores and cleaned up after ourselves in high school, but a harsh reality is there are many very privileged students on this campus who may never have had to do such things. While some of us had jobs since we were 16, others have yet to work. This leaves them with a disconnect when it comes to understanding the frustrations of being a public service worker.
While I know some people who view the more privileged on this campus with a sort of contempt or bitterness, that is not how I feel. Instead, I feel some of us, due to life’s circumstances, simply learn some adult lessons earlier. As a waitress in high school, I learned to gather up my dishes and mess into one spot on a table to make it easier for the busser cleaning it up. My dad is 50 years old but never worked as a waiter. If it weren’t for my mother and me, I doubt he’d ever collect his dishes in such a way. The truth is that learning these lessons often has very little to do with age by itself, but more to do with an openness to learning and finding compassion for people and places one doesn’t understand as well. It is never too late to start taking into consideration how to be kind toward those serving us.
One simple thing to keep in mind is most of the people serving you here in the dining halls, restaurants and cafes are other students! We are students who have to work one or maybe even two jobs to pay for rent and groceries in order to be able to afford attending school here. If that is not the reality for you, there is no need to feel ashamed, but maybe you do need to consider how you could be more courteous toward these other students. Something as simple as picking up a napkin and throwing it in the correct trash bin can go a long way. While you may not think your one napkin makes that much of a mess, if one hundred other students think the same thing this becomes a 10- to 15-minute extra closing task for a dining hall worker who still has to go home and do homework like you.
The simple truth is, as a freshman, it is very mature to understand and be OK with the knowledge that you have a lot to learn about being a courteous adult. You are going to overlook some things in the struggle to acclimate to your new environment, but the more time you take to notice the people around you each day, the more you will find yourself willing and able to take the extra step of kindness and courtesy toward a stranger — whether it is holding the door, cleaning up your mess or simply saying “excuse me” when you pass someone on the sidewalk. These are all big steps toward becoming a fully functioning and aware adult in today’s busy world because, the truth is, you are not a child anymore.
Abbie Berringer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.