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Magazine Essays

Still at Work
Spring 2004
PDF Version

I first visited Berry College one beautiful winter afternoon as the setting sun was momentarily transforming the Ford Buildings into gold. All around, there were students at work - raking, loading trucks with fallen limbs, sweeping walkways and then moving on to other tasks as the last light of the day began to fade. It struck me then that the true beauty of this scene lay in the energy of the young people who were taking such good care of this lovely place.

Students began working at Berry on Jan. 13, 1902 - the first day of Martha Berry's educational experiment - and they are still at it. Martha Berry had two important reasons for keeping her pupils busy. There was no staff, and consequently the handful of boys had to pitch in. Moreover, Miss Berry wished to teach useful skills. As always, our founder was driven by enlightened pragmatism.

The work-opportunity program continues during the college's second century. Although work has not been required of Berry students since 1962, each week 1,416 students - about 80 percent of the student body - roll up their sleeves and go to work. Today we emphasize the mastery of good work habits and experience in supervising others as well as the attainment of ethical insights that are best gained in the workplace. Although students do perform important and necessary tasks, the primary function of the work program is educational. "Learning by doing" complements intellectual, moral and spiritual growth. While it would be far more efficient to assign most jobs to full-time employees, the work-opportunity program enables student workers to learn life lessons they probably would not encounter in other settings.

There are now 122 job classifications on campus that stretch from janitorial and grounds work to research associate. Students serve as teachers' assistants at the Child Development Center and the Berry Elementary School and as clerks in the business office. Four student workers live above our research dairy, and at least one of them is always on call to make certain all is well with the animals. Students work in the college auto shop and at the museum gift shop. Some students set up instructional laboratories, others help faculty members review professional literature, and still others drive tractors and operate spectrometers. Some 52 Berry students serve in our BITS - Berry Information Technology Students - program as computer technicians and trouble-shooters. After surviving a summer BITS boot camp and successfully earning the required A+ technology certification, this particular group of students is as skilled as the full-time technicians who perform similar duties elsewhere. Visitors to offices in Hermann Hall - including my own - almost always encounter a student worker at the receptionist's desk.

Berry old-timers tell me about the days when the hourly wage was 15 cents an hour. These days, our students are paid the federal minimum wage of $5.15 an hour and can qualify for small increases by receiving good performance reviews and taking on supervisory duties. Most students work at least 10 hours a week. All students start out with the same wages on the principle that all work is worthwhile, be it cleaning floors or tutoring calculus students. Students who hold the Founder's Scholarship work during four summers and full time for two semesters to meet tuition expenses. Scholarships, more than actual wages, make this program possible.

While I was writing this essay, the major league baseball star Alex Rodriguez was much in the news for his willingness to take a small cut in his $25 million annual salary in order to move from the Texas Rangers to the Boston Red Sox. I was struck that Berry pays out an identical amount - $25 million - for the annual wages, salaries and benefits of our 2,000 student workers, faculty and staff members.

A recent survey completed by 631 student workers and 68 student-work supervisors provides a helpful overview of the work-opportunity program. Nearly all surveyed students reported that their work experience was meaningful to them and helpful to the Berry community. Only 8 percent reported that their work was not meaningful, including one student who wrote that his job was emptying garbage twice a day! Although he may not see his work as "meaningful," that job has certainly been helpful. Nearly all supervisors report that student workers "are committed to offering their best" and that student work "is critical to the college mission."

Two comments from the many recorded in the survey help to tell the story of Berry's work-opportunity program. The first comes from a staff supervisor: "The challenge is to bring young people into your operation, build their confidence level, teach them important skills that they learn nowhere else, and maintain the productivity of your operation at the same time. As soon as they reach their most productive level, they graduate and you must begin again.... Skilled, caring supervisors are the life-blood of the Berry work program!" To all of that statement, I say "amen!"

The second comment comes from a student worker: "Food Service is at the top of my Greatest Experiences at Berry list. I have gained more experience there than just learning how to grill and wrap a sandwich. I have learned how to serve customers and explain our policies ... in a gentle manner. I have learned how to train others (and how hard that can be!). I have gained a heart for service - the kind of behind-the-scenes work that is needed but not necessarily recognized. And I have made friends and found mentors among students and staff members in Food Service that I will treasure for the rest of my life. The work-opportunity program was one of the things that originally drew me to Berry, and it is the source of some of the greatest lessons I'll take away."

One of the major goals of Berry's strategic plan is to "offer improved opportunities that will allow all students to learn from an increasing variety of hands-on experiences and to learn about the roles of work for self and society through study, reflection and experience." Continuous improvement is vital to the health of the work-opportunity program. This program, no less than the academic curriculum, must respond to the changing circumstances and challenges of contemporary life. What does not change is the value of "worthwhile work well done." The satisfaction that comes from doing a job well is the same today as it was a century ago. The stories that Berry graduates - and present day students - tell about their work experiences demonstrate the enduring importance of work as a part of a Berry education.

Dr. Scott Colley
Berry College President    
 

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