June 05, 2009
Running a university in an urban setting takes a rare combination of skills ranging from the managerial to the visionary. Add to that a keen interest in student participation in all aspects of governance and community involvement, and you get a picture of Jim Harris, the president of Widener University. It wouldn't be too farfetched to say that Harris learned his skills as a tough strategist in the boxing ring and his commitment to public service at his grandmother's house.
I believe that life's toughest lessons are best learned through personal experience.
Throughout my childhood my grandmother provided me with unconditional love but always reminded me that "you are no better than anyone else, but you are just as good as anyone." To her, it was important to treat others with dignity, no matter what their position in the world and by doing so you would earn respect in return.
I thought I knew what she meant,but I guess I never really understood why she was always encouraging me to treat people with dignity no matter their station in life.
That was until I was 17 and got a summer job as a janitor cleaning the restrooms in some local factories in my hometown. It was a humbling experience for me. I learned first hand what it was like to be "invisible" as I scrubbed floors and toilets and watched people walk right by me and not even recognize my presence. There were even people I knew from my childhood who worked in the factories that seemed not to remember my name. It outraged me that people couldn't see past my job and my uniform to recognize who I was as a person. This made me feel angry and wanting to strike out at those who were treating me poorly.
When I complained to my grandmother she reminded me to never forget the feeling of being "invisible" and to do the best job I could because it was still my work and in that I should take pride. She also stated that it would make me a better man some day.
Make me a better man someday? She must be joking, I thought to myself. But, I needed the job to pay for college and there were few other jobs available, so I bit my tongue worked for the rest of the summer.
So I learned to always take pride in my own work and to respect the work of others.
I pledged I would never become so self absorbed with my own importance in life to not personally pay attention to others who might not have the same title, position or good fortune as me.
That experience influenced me profoundly. Today, when I am asked what job helped prepare me to assume the leadership of a major metropolitan university I tell people it was my summer job cleaning restrooms. Not then work itself, but the whole job experience. It shaped me as a man and down the road, as an educator.
I believe that students, young people, should get out of their comfort zones and get deeply involved in different work and community experiences. It's is essential for people to find value in every person, no matter who they are or what they do for a living.
Once again, my grandmother was right.