Class holds focus groups on student-custodian relations

The news section occasionally features articles based upon course work concerning the College; last year, these pieces included a series on  the ’62 Center for Theatre and Dance and the new Williams Inn. This piece has been written by two students in “Qualitative Research Methods in Public Health” taught by Visiting Lecturer in Public Health Marion Min-Barron.

“‘Custodian’ is caring of the people [and] the building, not just the building or the job … versus a janitor. We are definitely custodians, not janitors.” This was just one of many thoughtful reflections and perceptions the class came across as its members spoke with both students and staff about the dynamics of student-custodian relationships on campus.

The class, “Qualitative Research Methods in Public Health,” wanted to probe into the different ways students interact with their residential custodians on campus and, in turn, the kind of perceptions custodians might have about these relationships. Drawing on methods learned in class, two focus groups were held, one with students and the other with residential custodial staff. Ultimately, the goal was to share the class’s most salient findings in hopes of providing more information about the value, strength and importance of these interactions, along with the ways that the College community can improve these relationships.

The student focus group asked questions like, “What kind of interactions do you have with your custodians?” and “What are the most negative or positive experiences you’ve had with custodians?” These questions were answered with varying responses. For first-year students, it seemed those who lived in Mission Park were more likely to have personal relationships with their custodians than those who lived in Frosh Quad. Answers described custodians in Mission who were particularly caring and even attended students’ games. One student reflected fondly on their relationship with a custodian, saying, “He was definitely a part of my everyday life. We knew his name. We knew him super well. We talked to him pretty much every day we saw him. We knew his life.”

Some of the students also noted that some dorms are not conducive to forming personal relationships with custodians. For example, one participant stated that, in Fayerweather, the only place to chat with a custodian is in the bathroom, since there are no common rooms. The students in the focus group seemed to agree that they found value in forming personal relationships with the residential custodians, but this was not something they required or expected from their custodians. Some students suggested that first-years should be at the focal point of this relationship-building initiative, as setting the tone for relationships with custodians would endure for the rest of the students’ time at the College.

In the custodian focus group, the custodians expressed a desire to be present in students’ experiences at the College and foster these relationships. When the custodians were asked what their favorite part of the job was, the most common answer was “meeting the students.”

Some even said they would want to be “mother and father figures to the students” if they could. It was clear that many wanted to serve as a resource for and provide help to the students, beyond just the everyday responsibilities of their job.

These observations were coupled with suggestions for how the student body could better be considerate towards custodians. The custodians pointed out that they wished students were better at recycling, and wished that students would at least try to clean up biohazards before the custodians arrived at the scene.

Looking forward, custodians spoke of the hope of having events that brought themselves and students together. Students often forget that these untapped relationships could enhance their experience at the College.  As one custodian said, “We have a lot of life experience that we wish students would utilize us as a resource in a community, especially the underclassmen. So when a student asked me where they could find a good garage around here, I picked one out for them. We want to be a resource for local information like that.”

Overall, these focus groups found that students and custodians appreciated their interactions with each other, but felt that there was still room for growth and improvement. The class chose to respond to these desires by hosting a social gathering involving both students and custodians, as its contribution to bridging the divide between stressed-out college students and supportive residential custodians who look forward to forming relationships with residents.