Tuesday, March 29, 2011

making the world better, one sipa bathroom at a time

A SIPA* professor recently claimed, in class, that I was sitting among the best and brightest minds in the world. I wouldn’t want to disagree with him, but I can’t help but wonder why some of these bright minds seem incapable of throwing leftover food in the trashcan. Even getting used toilet paper where it belongs is an apparent challenge.

“Imagine the contradiction of people who say they want to go out and make the world a better place, yet they cannot take care of their immediate environment,” said a male second-year.

First-year Michelle Chahine told me about two leading presidential candidates who set up campaign tables with brownies and chocolates during last fall’s SIPASA election. “I was sitting nearby when voting closed,” Chahine recalled. “The candidate I had voted for moments before looked at his watch, picked up his backpack and walked away, leaving a huge mess of crumbs, food containers, flyers and posters.”

“I couldn’t believe my eyes!” she continued. “This was an individual aspiring to lead SIPA’s student body. A few minutes later, a cleaning lady passed by. She stopped in her tracks at the sight of the mess. I watched her visibly sigh as she removed all the trash, recycled the paper and wiped down the tables. This made me truly regret my vote.”

News flash, SIPA students. Yes, we do have a cleaning staff. They work hard. But they are here to maintain the building, not pick up after you.

Some claim that not cleaning up after ourselves is a matter of convenience: it is easier to walk away from spilled coffee than to take the time to wipe it off the floor. But I don’t remember hearing that SIPA was supposed to be easy. If we can handle GREs, Econ and Stats, surely we can flush the toilet. Or can’t we?

“I cannot believe that women, well-educated women, cannot flush,” said second-year Mónica Adame. “Sometimes our facilities are worse than those at Penn Station.” Second-year Camilla Lyngsby jokingly explained, “Some ladies think they have to flush before they use the bathroom and not after. That is not good!” To be fair to the ladies, I’ve heard the same is true of the men’s bathroom.

If the excuse is that you don’t want to dirty your hands, then use your feet! Or simply remember that you are (hopefully) on your way to washing your hands.

While we are on the subject of bathrooms, here are some thoughts: Why does used toilet paper decorate the stall’s floor (also, why are unmentionable lady-specific fluids sprinkled all over the toilet?)? Why are there used paper towels spread around (that’s right around – not in) the trashcan? And why, oh why are beans, corns, peas, lettuce, hair and tealeaves floating around in the bathroom sink?

The mess extends beyond the bathrooms. Anyone who has searched for a spot on the sixth floor café can empathize with first-year Christopher Reeve. “I was looking for a table to eat lunch and there was rice everywhere – on the table, on the seats – and there was orange juice on the floor,” said Reeve. “Where is the shame in walking away from your mess? It seems that people think their mothers work here.”

Such actions may stem from a lack of respect, consideration, personal hygiene or simple awareness. I’ve heard failed justification attempts ranging from “without our mess, people would not have a job” to “we pay US$25,000 a semester, don’t make us feel bad about it.”

“Saying that cleaning up after SIPA students is someone’s job, that that’s what people get paid to do, I find it so unsettling,” said a male second-year. “Those are the same people who are graduating with a top degree, and claim to be riding on a white horse to better people’s lives around the world. It’s an elitist attitude. A lack of accountability.”

Fellow students point out that the “Dirty SIPA” phenomenon comes from a sense of entitlement, from belonging to a privileged group. Could it be that our “best and brightest” status has a downside? Are we so absorbed by it that we believe it excuses us to act like pigs?

Just as I am confident that we will go out and make the world a better place, I firmly believe SIPA doesn’t have to be a disgusting cesspool. Let social change begin in the bathroom.

* Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs.

This article was written for and published by Columbia's Communique.

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