Opinion: When you put respect to the test, do the changemakers pass?
From the Newsstands: This story appeared in The Eagle's April 2022 print edition. You can find the digital version here.
American University has dubbed its students as “changemakers.” These students will be leaders in scholarship, learning and community and are driven by values such as integrity and inclusive excellence. But who supports these students, allowing them to achieve these values and goals? And, more importantly, do these changemakers respect those that assist them in making change?
AU prides itself on producing students of excellence, as President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was chancellor of the University in 1934, noted in his speech:
“Among the universities of the land American University is yet young; but you have a great future — a great opportunity for initiative, for constructive thinking, for practical idealism and for national service,” Roosevelt said.
Many of these students will major in international relations, business and political science — studies that will all train students to be leaders. AU is community and service-oriented and works to train students through academic and career opportunities to be excellent public servants, but the first step to true excellence is respect for everyone, especially those that make it possible for students to achieve these high standards.
The staff at AU are vital to the continuation of life here. They are in charge of feeding students, cleaning common areas and classrooms, repairing technical and physical problems, working on the landscape and operating the shuttle buses. University staff make it possible for students to live and learn in a clean and safe environment. Despite the hard work of the staff, they are constantly disrespected by a student body who prides themselves on wanting to change the world.
Staff columnist Emily Brignand wrote an opinion article in fall 2021 detailing her experience with students disrespecting staff and lacking in manners. She noted that “after months of getting to know more people at AU and noticing a pattern of poor manners, it has become nothing but an embarrassment and a disappointment to witness these behaviors being glossed over or tolerated by our community.” This is deeply upsetting to hear and see, considering our student body is praised for their progressiveness and our focus on leadership.
Emily is not alone in this, as I have noticed this occurring during my time at AU as well. I have seen students leave their trash on tables when the trash can was next to the door. I have watched students’ eyes roll at the pick up area for food after their name has been called out multiple times. I have heard the groans and murmurs of students complaining about wait times as the staff worked as fast as they could, even though the students know that wait times are not the staff’s fault. What I have not heard is students thanking those that have worked with the long lines and the upset students. I have felt the sting of students talking back to staff and tasted the bitterness of the air they left behind. All the while, the staff continued to serve, ensuring our safety and attending to our needs.
I believe our student body to be capable of more patience and understanding, especially seeing as everyone has had to have more understanding in recent years compared to others, but so far I have not been impressed by this student body. It is also not to say that our student body has no respect for others — professors and leaders in the AU community are often shown respect and even admiration — but it is quite interesting to see how this respect has not translated to respect for the staff that the students interact with every day. Yes, this community does have the privilege of bringing in talent and leaders all across the world so that students can learn from them, but I believe that true learning and true test of character is how students interact with the community they are already a part of and the community they wish to lead.
I also know students that have been respectful to the staff. I have seen kindness and manners, and so I do believe that there is hope for our student body to understand the importance of respect for everyone. I know that the students here care for others, or else they would not have chosen this path in life, but I fear for the result of their paths if they continue to act disrespectful towards those that are helping them along their way.
This is a community of students who have reached a high academic caliber and chose majors that devote them to public service, yet they treat the people they vow to represent as if they are too beneath them to deserve respect. It is upsetting to see this demographic of students act in such a way and then declare that they are advocates for the people. How can someone lead people with dignity when they don’t view those people as deserving of respect?
We are given an incredible opportunity at AU to learn and become leaders in this world and this is our chance to do so. Learning to be respectful is just as important as learning academics in the classroom. We are seen as changemakers and this is our chance to make great change. If we’re going to be public servants or leaders in our industries, we should listen to and be respectful of the public we interact with.
Anna Gephart is a sophomore in the School of Public Affairs and a columnist for The Eagle.