Want better SPO service? Give us more space.

The back floor at the Student Post Office. Photos courtesy of the author.

By Elliott Robinson
Contributing Writer

Way down in the basement of the Bishop’s Common, there is a very tiny space that plays a very big role for the Sewanee community. Students, professors, parents, staff, and community members all rely on this place, but most have no idea what has to go on behind the scenes. At the Student Post Office, or the SPO for short, we work hard each and every day to make sure that everyone is able to send and receive their mail.

For the past 22 years, my dad has been a postal clerk in Gordonsville, VA. Watching him work has taught me many things, but above all, it showed me the ins and outs of the postal service. 

This year is like no other year in postal history. The U.S. population has been ordering more packages than ever before. Since the middle of March, my dad has said that, “Every day is like the Christmas season, but with absolutely no end in sight. At least with Christmas time, I know when it’s going to end.” His office has been delivering mail 7 days a week with an average of 2,000 packages per day. Granted there are many differences between a USPS post office and a campus post office, but the struggles are just the same.

Since the 1970s, the SPO has been in the exact same place in the Bishop’s Common. There have been a few changes over the years, but only a few. This summer, the bookstore was finally able to relocate to its new downtown building. We were hoping that this move would allow us to move upstairs in the Bishop’s Common to where the bookstore was before. Instead, we were greeted with a new system and parcel lockers.

When we were told that we would be getting a new system, we were all under the impression that this new software would be great and would really speed things up at the SPO. The parcel lockers continually crash and lock us out, the new system is just as slow as the last one, and most times the handheld scanners do not want to sync with the main systems. We are struggling to make sure that people are getting all of their packages because when nothing is syncing, it is hard to know which ones have been picked up already.

Each student is supposed to get an email from the SPO whenever they receive a package, but our new system does not always want to send out this email. So, the line backs up out the door because we have to look each student up every time. 

Students line up outside the SPO and wait for their packages.

A while ago, I saw a Facebook comment in the Women of Sewanee group that criticized the SPO. As a dedicated student worker, I was slightly hurt by this. When I go into work most mornings, we are already swamped and overrun with packages. At the end of the day, we have scanned anywhere from 700 to 1,500+ packages for the entire University. Oh, let’s not forget that we come into work behind most days and immediately start running the packages from the day before! We are struggling to keep up with the demand. 

Hillary Cheston has said multiple times that the students at the SPO are “some of the hardest workers [she’s] ever met” and this is very true. Many people forget that 17 of the 20 workers at the SPO are student workers. For new workers, there is no training period, instead new workers are having to learn on the job. With an ever increasing amount of packages, student workers must be willing and able to learn the new locations and “slang words” that we have for everything. For example, there is a big difference between closet shelf, white shelf, and shelf. Each one of these shelves is a different storage location because we simply don’t have the space to keep it all in one place. 

At the beginning of 2020, Luke Gair (C’21) wrote an article for The Sewanee Purple about Hillary Cheston’s experiences while working for the SPO. Here at the SPO, we were all super excited about this article because we were all ready to have some light shown on how crazy and cramped it is in our little office. Yet, no one seemed to care once the article appeared. We have continually been told that there is nowhere the SPO can move. “Really,” people say, “y’all need more room?” Ask any SPO employee or student worker what we need changed and we will all say the same thing: SPACE.

Currently, there are two “SPO counters.” One is the regular counter, and the other is a makeshift SPO located in the Tiger Bay Pub. Instead of being granted a building with more space, we were given a “solution” to move some packages into the Pub and work out of there. We now have a laptop, a scanner, and a printer set up in the Pub so we can work there. Let me be clear when saying that this is not working for us. The lines are still long, the system is still slow, and the job is still hazardous.

Packages from the SPO overflow into Pub.

If nothing changes and the SPO remains in its tiny basement, we will not be able to work. We already have packages stacked up higher than our heads and placed in a maze along the floor. Shelves are spilling onto the floor with the overflow and buckets upon buckets are being filled up. Walking at the SPO requires skill simply because you must be ready for packages to fall over (or off a shelf) at any second. I cannot count the bruises and scrapes I have received from falling packages while working there.

We are tired. We are out of space. We have taken over half of the Tiger Bay Pub because we have no room for large packages in our tiny office. We are overworked and unappreciated. We are tired of being yelled at by students, parents, and professors. We are struggling to run every package that comes in. We understand that students are more reliant on us than ever before, but we cannot continue to work in this space. 

So please, the next time you are waiting in line at the SPO remember that we are trying our best, but we can only do so much until we get the space we need.

Elliott Robinson (C’23) working from the Pub window.