No word from AU on death of well-liked TDR worker
This summer, Terrace Dining Room staff member Tijuana Saunders passed away at age 59 in her home. Saunders was a cashier for seven years, swiping students and others into TDR.
Neither University administration or Aramark, the company that contracts and manages food service and janitorial staff for the University, informed the AU community about the death of Saunders.
The University traditionally has not sent out messages about the deaths of service workers. In 2013, TDR worker Shirley Epps died, The Eagle previously reported. Epps was a singer and an activist, leading a memorial service on campus in 1974 for Martin Luther King, Jr. on what would have been his 45th birthday. The community was not alerted to her death by the administration.
“The administration is aware of student concern about this, and they are taking a look at the situation and how the information is shared,” AU Director of Public Relations Kelly Alexander said about the death of Saunders.
The Eagle did not receive comment from Aramark in time for publication.
School of Public Affairs junior Tashell Mitchell, who met Saunders during her freshman year, said she was angry there was no message to students of Saunders’ passing.
“Folks like [AU President] Neil Kerwin believe professors and a bunch of high-headed professionals spewing facts at us make the biggest difference,” Mitchell said. “But I've had a different experience—Tijuana, a woman worth so much more than her wages, had become a great source of guidance for me.”
Many students have reached out to administration concerning the passing of Saunders, but replies have been scarce.
“I reached out to every dean, communications [and] administrative official I could find to hold accountable,” Mitchell said. “So far I've received a couple emails, one of them advising me to reach out to the counseling center or an RA for comfort and support.”
Saunders was not only well-liked among the AU student body but beloved by her TDR co-workers. After working in the food services department for seven years, many of them considered her a close friend.
“She was the type of person who would uplift you, she was the type to encourage you, when most of the workers were down she’d bring a smile to their face,” TDR Receiver Anthony Randolph, who has worked in AU food services for the past 15 years, said. “And she would never complain about her own issues.”
AU has a long-standing tradition of sending out emails in honor of deceased students, staff and faculty, both current and former. On Sept. 15, the University sent out a “Fall Semester Update” which included a list of community members who had passed during the summer months. Saunders was not included on the list.
“Neither Aramark nor the University ever reached out,” Randolph said. “It was only workers notifying other workers.”
On Sept. 28, the Student Worker Alliance published a Facebook post mourning the loss of Saunders. This was the first time many students heard of her death.
“Professors, students, administration, service workers and everyone else who is a part of AU are all equally important members of our community,” Catherine Leigh Harlos, a student organizer in SWA, said. “When a food service worker passes, they should be given the same respect and recognition that any other member of our community is given because that is what a community is.”
After SWA’s post, backlash from students who knew Saunders personally quickly surfaced.
“Tijuana was like a mother figure to me and many other students at AU,” Carlos Vera, founder of Exploited Wonk, a campaign to advocate for AU service workers, said. “She worked at the entrance of TDR, always armed with a smile and ready to greet students and swipe them in.”
Since learning of the news from another TDR staff member, Vera, a senior in the School of Public Affairs, said he is seeking recognition for Saunders and is asking the University to release a formal statement.
“While a statement from the University is only a symbolic gesture, it works toward bringing visibility to the hard-working individuals who have served at AU for decades without the status or recognition of being AU employees,” he said.