"They just remind me to enjoy life. I watch them just take advantage of every moment."
Photos by Megan Monday
Groundskeeping Crew | UW-Oshkosh, WI
Lisa: We’re the Groundskeeping Crew for UW-Oshkosh, and we're in charge of all the gardening and landscaping aspects for the entire campus. Right now, we’re getting it to look great for the start of the school year.
I’m excited to do this for the students, but actually I think a lot about the parents when we do this work. We really try to make everything, especially the dorms, look really, really nice. When the parents come on Labor Day weekend and they are dropping their kids off, I want them to see something spectacular. I want them to feel really comfortable about having their kids here.
Before UW, I had my own gardening business for 16 years.
It was good, but it was always tough to manage. I was the only employee, I had no retirement plan, that sort of thing. I felt really fortunate when I moved over to UW-Oshkosh, because I suddenly had more support through my job.
Another thing I love about having made the move to UW is that I LOVE working with students. They’re fast and strong and funny, and they’re a total bright spot in my day. Some days can be really frustrating and those guys will be goofy as heck and just break it up for me. It’s great. And I’ve actually learned a ton from them. All the digital stuff that I figured out thanks to them, and they just remind me to enjoy life. I watch them just take advantage of every moment.
Lisa: Before I worked with students, I thought maybe they’d be very critical of each other, cliquey and stuff. And so many people say this generation is selfish…but I just don't see that at all with my crew. They're just so happy for the most part, and I love it. Now, none of them are morning people, so just to needle ‘em a little bit I make sure at six o'clock in the morning I am the most happy, exuberant person and they're like, "Oh, we hate you." They keep it jokey and light. And we get so much done! I've been bragging about my students all year and I don't think anybody realized how good they were until they started seeing some of the finished products and how quickly they happened. Then it was like, "Okay, yeah, you hired a good group."
For one of my students, this is his living and he never skips, he never takes off. I'll give opt-out days and he never leaves early. There's a couple other students like that, too. They need the money, that's what's paying for the next semester of books. They're practical, they're realistic. For me, it gives me hope for when we hand things over to the next generation. There's hope, and I see it in my students.
Lisa: We were named the third most sustainable campus in the country. Right here in Oshkosh! Number one and two are in California. We've got solar power on campus, we've got geothermal on campus, we've got several buildings that are platinum LEED buildings.
As far as the groundskeeping goes, we’ve got a lot here, too. We are a Tree Campus USA through the Arbor Day Foundation, and we’ve even been winning awards through that. We are a monarch way station. We have tons of prairies and we use a lot of different techniques as far as drought tolerant, native species. We do permaculture. We have our own composting program here at campus. We're going to be doing our first gravel garden. My goal is in three years to not be using any chemicals on campus, or a very limited amount. Unfortunately, you're always going to have the weeds, but I don't want any pesticides or fungicides on campus anymore. I think that goal is realistic.
There's a couple of classes I've gone on walks with. We’ve got a lot of purposeful edible plants on campus that I like to point out. And even weeds! A lot of the weeds are edible. I'm like, "Here's some parsley, put it in your salad!"
I keep telling our biology department, "This is the largest classroom we've got. It’s out here!" Being part of the school sustainability initiatives, it's been very satisfying.
Ebuka: Lisa...she's the best supervisor I've ever worked with. The best. I want to be like her. So every time if I see her talking with people, I go there. Learning things from her. I was having a discussion with her, I think it was the first week I started working. She was saying that she loved to treat people nice, so that in return, people will treat her nice. She believes in karma. Anything you give, that's what will come back to you. So she does her best to be the best she can be, enjoy life, treat people equally. That is who she is. She's awesome. I wouldn't still be here if it wasn’t for her.
Ebuka: I’m from Nigeria, now studying business at UW-Oshkosh. It was very important to my parents, especially to my mom, that I go to college. She valued education more than anything. She always said, "When you have an education, you can do more for others, and more for yourself."
In my family, we all are very fortunate to go to school. But back home in Nigeria that’s not the case for many. I used to buy books, pens, pencils, shoes, you know...and give it to students. Even pay some of their school fees, just to encourage them. It’s a big thing to go to school, and then only about 10 percent go on to college. Tuition is high, we have no financial aid, no student loans, and they expect you to pay all at once. So, you know, almost no one can save for that. It’s very limiting.
I came to Oshkosh for business school, and during my courses I started to think about the college situation back home in Nigeria. I started to think up a business solution to it. We surveyed five countries in Africa. All students. 97 percent of them said the only problem that they have getting to college is the limited time they have to pay the tuition fee. So me and some of my friends here at Oshkosh, we're working on a business to allow students in their home countries in Africa to pay for school in installments.
Ebuka: I’m lucky and privileged that my family pays for my school, so the money I’m earning here is going straight into the business. Right now we are piloting the program in Kenya and Uganda. I hope to go into Nigeria next. I feel that, with education, a child can break the barrier of poverty. They can get a job. They can help their family get out of poverty. So, that is my happiness. To see those kids, to see them happy. To see them step out of poverty into a better life.
Matt: Oh man, I love my dad. He’s been an educator his whole life, and an inspiration. He has a really strong work ethic, and he’s always pushing himself to do new things. When I was little, he was a teacher, which was great. Then we had to move so he could become a vice principal, and again when he became a principal and then a superintendent.
So I moved a lot growing up, all throughout Wisconsin. Right before college, we moved to Washington Island in Door County. It's literally an island; you have to take a ferry to get there. I had ten people in my grade. There were 26 kids in the whole high school. I was like, "How am I going to do this?"
But I grew a lot, through all those moves. At first I had resentment, being uprooted so much. I was kinda angry having to deal with starting over so many times. But in the end I think it bonded our family closer. And it made me more resilient, more open to transitions, which came in handy when I first went away to college.
That was when I realized that that's going to constantly happen throughout life. There are times when you're going to have to hit that reset button and welcome the next chapter. It’s been nice branching out. You’ve got to just keep growing, keep moving forward.
Matt: I’m a weird mix of introversion and extroversion. I’ve become really close with all the Groundskeeping Crew, so they can't shut me up. I talk, like, a million-miles-per-hour, constantly. But then when I'm around new groups of people I totally get closed off. Sometimes my friends are like, "Why don't you act the way you do with us?" I guess I’m nervous about what other people will think.
So if I were to give advice to myself as an incoming freshman, here’s what I’d say: Don't over-think it with new social situations. Seriously. Don’t over-think the small talk. There were so many times that I'd want to say something, and then I’d stop myself, like. "No, that might come off sounding really dumb."
Now, I realize I could have made even more connections if I would have just been willing to put myself out there…entertained the small conversations and maybe watch them grow into something more. You sell yourself short when you don’t share who you are.
Anna: As a kid, I was obsessed with the book The Lorax. Now I have a tattoo of the tree from that book with the word ‘unless’ under it.
As in, "Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better, it's not."
I have another tattoo that says, "Nothing in nature exists alone." Actually, the tattoo artist misspelled it, so it really says, “Nothing in nature exits alone.” I’m not too mad about it. We’re human, we all make mistakes.
I came to UW-Oshkosh because my mom and my sister went here. It’s a family school, plus it was more affordable than the private college I was looking at up at north. I’m paying my own way, and I've worked eight campus jobs through my five years here. Right now I’m working on the Groundskeeping Crew, getting the campus ready for the start of the school year. It’s where I’ve met most of my friends, actually, through work. And sure, we have to weed, but we make it fun.
In high school, I took every science I could. It's what I really liked. So now I’m double majoring in sociology and environmental science. I like the human side of environmental science...maybe I'll go into the Peace Corps one day.
Anna: I’ve got loads of tattoos. Have you ever heard of this group called 'To Write Love on Her Arms?' It was started to help prevent people from cutting themselves—literally to write ‘love’ on their arms instead of scars.
When I was in high school, one of my really good friends was fluent in Spanish and we would write ‘Te Amo’ on our arms in Sharpie. You’re supposed to write it on one arm if you’re suffering, and on the opposite arm if you’re an ally. Later on I got the tattoo, so now it’s a permanent reminder that I'm an ally.
Jed: When I was growing up, I always had the term thrown at me: jack-of-all-trades. It was like anything I got my hands on, I could understand it and work it and be decent at it. So when it came time for me to choose a direction to go after high school, it was very hard to focus in and pick something.
People say, "Do what you love! Do what you love, and you’ll never work a day in your life!" And it's like, "Okay, but I love everything!" I just had no idea on direction. I remember, I was a senior in high school, two months to graduation, and I had just gotten accepted to UW-Stout. I was sitting in my basement, and I'm like, "I don't think I want to go there…I mean, what do I even want to do with my life?"
I thought about it some more, and this question popped into my mind: What activities do I get so lost in that time just doesn't exist? At the time, for me it was music. I loved it. So I decided I’d get a degree in audio engineering. I packed up and got started at a technical school in another state.
But then, during my studies, I realized it wasn't my career path. I just kinda got disillusioned with it. For me, it was better to keep music a hobby. Once I made that realization, I started to look around at other classes, other directions. I took an Intro to Psychology course on a whim, and it just felt right. It was just like, "This is awesome. THIS is what I want to study." So I switched my major. I like working with people, so I applied and got accepted to the social work program here.
Jed: There's actually a lot of different ways that you can go in social work. You can focus on kids, elderly, family, a bunch of stuff. Again I wasn’t really sure where I wanted to go. But I had an opportunity to get involved as a mentor to kids through my coursework. I just take a kid out into the community and we hang out, and I try to set a good example. A lot of the kids involved with the program are either in foster care or are diagnosed with emotional or behavior disorders. They have trouble in school, trouble at home.
A lot of times, it really helps to just sit there and listen to them, to make them feel validated in what they're experiencing, in the choices that they're making. Even for myself personally, when I feel validated, it makes me energized and happy and able to pursue what I need. So this mentoring opportunity has been super valuable, 'cause now I can see myself pursuing social work with kids in the future. I had to go through the experience to know that.
I’ve tried a lot of different things so far in life, but I feel like you just have to try things out. People can tell you what things are going to be like, but you just never really know unless you go and experience it for yourself. And then, you have to not be afraid to make a change if things don’t work out. If you realize, somewhere along the way, that what you're doing isn't what you want to be doing? Change. Don’t be afraid to change.