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Cornelius Range V
Plead the Fifth

Credit: Cornelius Range

Lisa Barber is one of the first people I met at Penn as a freshman. She has shared dimes of wisdom with me on everything from family to relationships. Lisa is an avid reader; she has read more novels in the past four years than me — and probably you as well.

However, her best quality is her humility, a trait that I have tried my best to emulate. If you ask her how her day is going she’ll look you in the eye and respond with a friendly, “I can’t complain.” Every time. And then instead of brushing you off or abruptly ending the conversation, as is the norm with so many Penn students, she will follow up by asking you about your day. Always.

If you haven’t guessed by now, Lisa isn’t a Penn student. She works as an AlliedBarton guard in Harnwell College House and occasionally in the other high rises. I am lucky to have her as a friend and grateful to have had her as a staple in my Penn experience.

The same is true of some of the good folks that staff the dining halls or work for the University in other capacities. To this day, the thing I miss most about having a meal plan is having Miss Anita wish me a good day or seeing Miss Mary every night for dinner. Indeed, if it hadn’t been for Miss Anita, I might never have met University Chaplain Chaz Howard, who has helped me mature with his sage advice.

One morning, I went to 1920 Commons for breakfast and, even though I was smiling, Miss Anita could detect something was wrong. She gave me a small sheet of paper with Chaz’s email address on it. I will always appreciate the fact that she cared enough to ask how I was doing.

But I wonder how many students would take the time to return the favor. At an institution that constantly emphasizes the importance of building relationships with professional firms like Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley via on-campus recruiting, I wonder if students increasingly overlook the value of building relationships with everyday people — people who play integral roles in our community.

An article titled “Social Class as Culture,” published in August in the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science, found that wealthy people show less empathy, compassion and pro-social behavior than working-class people. In one of its studies, subjects were shown numerous pictures of people expressing different emotions; wealthier participants consistently had more difficulty identifying expressions than their poorer counterparts. One of the authors of the study noted that the wealthy are more likely to think about themselves.

Last summer, I worked in Penn’s Department of Housing Services, which is charged with accommodating programs that stay on campus over the summer. One day I was delegated the task of making sure no more than 10 people used Harrison’s only functioning elevator at the time.

Traffic was expected to be heavy because 300 high-school football players were staying for camp. However, just as the athletes began to trickle in, workers from Penn Jersey Building Maintenance and Window Cleaning — the firm that cleans your dorm room over the summer — also arrived to begin their shifts. An administrator from the housing program initially directed me to tell the workers to take the stairs, even though some had to walk as high as the 22nd floor. Ultimately, the workers were allowed to take the elevator, but the incident stuck with me for the rest of the day.

If Penn President Amy Gutmann and her staff had needed to do some project on the 22nd floor of Harrison that day, I doubt that anyone would have ordered her to take the stairs. Although few Penn employees receive checks as large as those cashed by Gutmann, they certainly deserve the same amount of respect and courtesy that she is accustomed to receiving. Their contributions might not be as large-scale, but they are certainly of equal importance. After all, without a Lisa Barber, Anita Whitley or Mary Brown, Penn wouldn’t be home.

Cornelius Range V is a College senior from Memphis, Tenn. His email address is Plead the Fifth appears every Wednesday.

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