The first time I caught a cold this semester was in mid-February, during my first round of papers. It was nothing more than fever and congestion, just an inconvenience for a few days. “Alright,” I said to myself after recovering, “at least that’s out of the way.”
Well, it wasn’t.
I got sick again, with similar symptoms, in mid-March, right before spring break during the height of midterms. I had to ask for an extension on a paper, hold off on my work, and quit studying for a few days. “Surely now I’ll be fine, right?”
I got sick for the third time in late March. While the symptoms were not terrible (like I said, it was just a bad cold), it began to impact my academics. I submitted a project incorrectly and fell behind on my course readings. On top of it all, I started to feel fatigued from the repeated oscillation between being sick, falling behind on my work, recovering, and cramming to catch up. And I was also starting to get kind of bummed, to be honest. This was my first semester at Wesleyan after transferring here, and my health had seriously impeded the extracurricular goals I wanted to achieve this spring.
When I finally went to the doctor, it turned out, as I had begun to suspect, that it was simply a case of being a new student—a combination of stress and exposure to new germs. Totally normal and to be expected.
There is no reason to suspect that my case was anything other than that: it’s been a particularly stressful semester, and that coupled with a lack of sleep is likely what brought on this sequence of illnesses.
But I’m not the only one getting sick around here, right? Maybe that’s all it was for me, but there’s no question that Wesleyan has a problem with sanitation.
At my previous school, a large university, whole crews of student workers were employed across each of the campus’s four dining halls to clean tables and wash dishes. A large janitorial staff was also maintained to clean classrooms, dorms, and recreational facilities. The process was often annoying, with people wiping tables right in front of you while you were trying to eat, but it was a necessary measure at such a large school. And it worked: in my two and a half years there, I only got sick twice.
As a student at Wesleyan, I have noticed a significant difference.
Have you seen Usdan lately? The communal silverware is poorly protected and the tables are covered in crumbs. The gym is well known to be a breeding ground for germs, and students often don’t clean up the facilities as they should, sweating on weightlifting equipment and treadmills. Classrooms, while housed in beautiful buildings, are often poorly cleaned with dirty rugs, leading to slimy door handles and chairs with mysterious dark stains (is that coffee??). Take a look for yourself if you think I’m exaggerating.
Of course, some buildings are better-cleaned than others, and some are cleaned quite well. Boger Hall is an example. But the point is that the quality of sanitation varies wildly across campus.
The result is that most of us fall sick at least once a semester, beset by a range of strange illnesses from the common cold to hand, foot, and mouth disease.
Not that poor campus hygiene is the only cause of these outbreaks—Wesleyan has a large population of students from across the country and from abroad, meaning that the selection of germs on campus is always changing, and developing immunity to them is difficult. There is also the simple fact that colleges by nature tend to be dirtier places than most; getting sick once in a while is an unavoidable byproduct of this environment.
But I refuse to believe that nothing can be done.
Getting sick multiple times a semester should not be an intractable part of the Wesleyan experience. We may get sick once a year, maybe more if we’re a first-year; that’s life. But when fifteen of us come down with a disease that’s only supposed to effect preschoolers, something needs to change.
This issue may be bigger than just our university, but that does not mean that common-sense fixes cannot be deployed to address it.
First things first: hire more custodians.
It is difficult to see how the current bare-bones, understaffed, overworked janitorial crew can be expected to keep the campus adequately clean. As the recent wave of protests has argued, the University can afford the change, and more humane work schedules are essential for an institution that bills itself as committed to social and economic justice.
The University’s refusal to agree is literally making us sick. Hiring more staff is not only a moral and ethical imperative, but an imperative for Wesleyan’s most basic responsibility of ensuring the health and wellbeing of its students. If a university can’t do that, what can it do?
The marginal increase in attendance fees required to enact this policy would be outweighed by the trips to Health Services we won’t need to take, the classes in which we will get an A- instead of a B+ because we are healthy enough to hand in the final paper on time. In fact, all told, we might even save money.
If you’re not convinced, there are several other ways to improve campus sanitation.
One quick fix: why not change how Usdan’s waiting line works? Currently, you hand your Wescard to the cashier, who swipes it and hands it back to you, transmitting the germs of everyone else who came before you. You then go right from there to the food lines, many of which are self-serve and require you to touch spoons, tongs, and ladles that have been graced by the presence of hundreds of fellow students.
And how many people press the pour button each day on one of the two water dispensers?
Placing one hand sanitizer machine behind the cashier and perhaps another in the dining commons itself would let us avoid contact with germs and would prevent spreading them through the dining hall food.
I don’t want the University to spend infinite amounts of money sanitizing every square inch of the entire campus, but a little bit goes a long way.
Trent Babington is a member of the Class of 2021 and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.