As we go about our daily lives, many of us don’t always take the time to stop and acknowledge all the people working behind the scenes to make things run smoothly; or all of the time, and diligence, and care that goes into this work.
Not everyone could be on campus this semester, but those who were owe it to these unsung heroes, who keep our community going. U-M Custodian and Positive Energizer Maggie Alexander is one of these champions.
“This last year, it’s been tough. It’s been very tough. I just don’t know what to say about the last year, except to express gratitude for the positive energy that has lifted me and helped me through it. I’ve met a lot of people on campus who have made work a positive experience and have made me feel welcome.”
Essential employees like Alexander didn’t have the luxury of shifting to virtual spaces, like much of the rest of the campus community. She currently works at the Industrial and Operations Engineering Building on North Campus. She has also handled grounds and floor care tasks in the summers. As a custodian, she emphasizes that it has never been more important to maintain the cleanliness of campus facilities. But over the past year, she has seen her role evolve far beyond that.
Alexander has become a voice of hope and a motherly figure. “To me, being a custodian at the university is helping the other parents know that their children are safe and okay.” She is available to offer students a kind word and a listening ear. Students who have graduated and moved to different places across the country have reached back out to Alexander, thanking her for brightening their days.
To the students:
“Oh my goodness, I applaud all the students. Everything you all have gone through and dealt with, I just can’t imagine how you all went through this and you’re still going through this.”
Alexander has a daughter of her own, Amanda, who is a doctoral student. “She makes me so proud. So proud. And then I look at the young students and I just think how much they have to give. You guys are just going to bring so much more into this world.” In her daughter’s college graduation speech, she thanked her mother for showing her strength and always sticking by her side.
In 2011, Amanda was diagnosed with cancer. She was a student at Hawaii University at the time, but had to return home for chemotherapy. It was around the same time that Maggie Alexander went through a divorce. She lost her house and struggled to pay her daughter’s tuition and medical bills. “When you become a parent, whatever your children are going through, you have to be there with them.” She was the person her daughter could call in the middle of the night, and the person who helped her find ways to laugh, even during the most trying times. Today a healthy cancer survivor, Amanda is a college graduate and currently a PhD student at University of Colorado Boulder. “But to do that, you have to fight,” says Alexander.
Books such as The Magic and The Secret by Rhonda Byrne gave Alexander the confidence to take on these challenges. These books are still two of her favorites, as they proved so helpful in a time of struggle. She practiced gratitude and looked at each day as a new opportunity. “I have another day to prove myself. I have another day to turn things around. Everything can change each day. I had to pick myself up each day and remind myself of these things,” she says.
Alexander has brought her exceptional ability to spread joy into her work at U-M. In addition to her role as a custodian, she is also a Positive Energizer in the Business and Finance (B&F) department. Positive Energizers are staff influencers who were called to engage colleagues in the B&F department-wide culture shift. In working toward the goals of connecting to a sense of purpose, recognizing the contributions of staff, building high-quality relationships, and promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion, the Positive Energizers played a pivotal role. They made the commitment to share information and resources about positive organizational concepts needed to achieve culture goals, engage their teams in related activities, and make a 1% positive change—or implement one new positive practice at work. The Energizers’ work was transformative. Teams across all B&F departments built stronger relationships, there were elevated levels of trust and collaboration, and staff found their interactions with colleagues and their work more meaningful.
“Being a positive energizer is wonderful because it brings people together,” says Alexander. [The following interventions occurred last year, when staff was still able to meet in person.] She engaged her colleagues in a team-building activity to help break the ice and connect with one another. She brought a beach ball and when each member had the ball they shared three things about themselves that their colleagues did not know. By the end of the exercise, “people were laughing and enjoying the time and wanting to do more,” Alexander says. So she took it one step further. On Valentine’s Day she set up tables around campus, and when students walked by they could grab a piece of candy and write a note about how they felt about the buildings: how was the custodial staff doing? This activity took place at the Art & Architecture, Cooley Building, Francois-Xavier Bagnoud, Industrial and Operations Engineering, Lurie Biomedical Engineering, School of Information, and Space Research Buildings. Notes poured in from students, faculty, and staff. At the next staff meeting, she had everyone read the notes aloud. The results were remarkable. “People wrote such heart-warming messages,” Alexander shares. “Our staff was being appreciated for things they did not even realize they were doing or had thought about before.” Custodial staff even wrote notes of gratitude for other staff, recognizing the hard work they saw.
“It can be something really small, and it can still make a difference. That is how you spread sparkle everywhere. Kindness goes on and on, like a domino effect.”
This support has been all the more imperative throughout the past year. “The work that was started a year ago has not stopped,” says Alexander. “B&F keeps creating different tools, they send emails out, they started a webpage, they keep us updated all the time. They are always making sure that if we encounter any problems, we can talk to department leaders such as Amy Bunch and Kevin Hegarty. I appreciate the way they have been doing work. They’re just wonderful, the most wonderful people you could ever meet. I feel important, I have a purpose, and there is a reason for me to be here.”
Without the contributions of people like Alexander, U-M would not be the place it is. She has not only lifted the spirits of her colleagues but also students, faculty, and staff across campus; while working to maintain the safety of our community. For this, we owe her infinite expressions of gratitude.
Blog post written by Keara Kotten, #UMSocial Intern and Michigan Ross Junior