By Luke Gair
When heading down to the basement of the Bishop’s Common, Hillary Cheston can always be found behind the counter with a soft smile: Whether it’s watching her track down a misplaced package or showing a student how to open a seemingly faulty mailbox, her care and consideration for the Sewanee community makes such a dim-lit space all the more brighter.
Before her career in the Student Post Office (SPO) began, Cheston spent a summer working at Print Services when she was 18, but it wasn’t long before her current coworker Johnny Hughes offered a change of scenery. “I’ve known [Hughes] almost my whole life,” she recalled, “[and] one day I was hanging out with my friends after work, and he pulled up in his car asking if I wanted to come over and help them out. I thought, ‘Well, that could lead into something.’ So I did.”
While initially assigned to a part-time position, she quickly worked her way up and found herself working full time in November of 1997. Cheston admitted that growing up, most have a different perspective of the college students here. When her position demanded consistent interactions with University students and staff, those presumptions quickly changed.
“I always felt inferior to the students because I was working in the post office when I should have been in school myself. I was timid and scared,” she shared.
Her time at St.Andrew’s-Sewanee didn’t turn her away from the realm of academia, rather she strongly preferred the more strenuous and hands-on work that places like the SPO require. The job is not just mentally exhausting, but physically too. The staff and work study students don’t arrive just to sit behind a desk until close—Cheston usually can’t get off her feet unless she’s on a break or having lunch.
The window might begin service around ten each morning, but the work requires that Cheston, Hughes, and other staff arrive no later than seven. Before the long line of students accumulates during the early rush, Cheston emphasizes that they have to pick up any mail from the downtown location, run each package, and sort each letter and magazine before the aluminum slatwall can be thrown open.
Cheston has seen the campus and its students change throughout her twenty-three years of service but, aside from a paint job or two, their space in the Bishop’s Common hasn’t changed at all. She talked about how difficult it can be to cope with “the fact that we’ve been forgotten.” Typically saturated in the lingering smells of Tiger Bay Pub, the windowless space begins to feel akin to a submarine after spending more than a few hours there.
Since the 2013-2014 school term, the amount of packages has increased from 38,598 to 57,718. With such numbers in consideration, the projection for the 2019-2020 term is approximately 63,472. The office has seen nearly a 65% increase, yet the office space remains small and unaccommodating to this growth.
SPO package totals per year.
Cheston explained that when she first began working in the post office, she worked with mostly magazines and letters. “But now, it’s shifted,” she began, “That’s all we are now—we’re a package business. We started seeing the packages increase a little bit a little more than ten years ago. [But] when Amazon started catching on, our world changed.”
“The kids here did not get packages as much as they do now. I don’t know what they did for Shake Day, Halloween, and Valentine’s Day, but it was nothing like it is now… I’ve heard this with a lot of student mailrooms,” said Cheston.
In the wake of this increase, Cheston and Hughes were met with one and a half positions cut from their staff. While the part time role has since been filled, they were forced to struggle all through the summer and the start of the year before that happened.
Once the 2019-2020 term began, their fourteen work study students were essential in filling gaps left behind from this staff reduction.
She reminisced about how these students constantly prove themselves as a means of salvation on the toughest days, highlighting that “I could not and would not be here without [the work study students]. They’re some of the hardest working students up here, and I need every single one of them.”
Behind the window, most cannot see how swamped the post office is most days of the year. There is a key science to keeping up hundreds of packages in that small of a space: The mailbox locations need to be memorized, boxes need to be alphabetized, and there is always a pile of newly delivered items demanding attention.
“There’s a lot to know. When I first started here, I thought it would be a piece of cake. I cried the first time I went home [after a shift],” said Cheson.
With a smile, she noted that her coworkers are so much like a family, especially after spending long hours with one another. “And I love the students, I do… they’re sweet and nice to me. I love being here and working with the public,” she concluded.
A fresh coat of paint and a few extra closets for storage might balance the scale for the time being, but it’s daunting to consider how the numbers will continue to grow in the next ten years. Cheston’s positivity and steadfast dedication to her work is undoubtedly an asset to the Student Post Office team, yet their growing trials and tribulations beg the question: When will they get the space they deserve?