For custodians, higher education still out of reach
The sun is setting. It’s quitting time for students and faculty but not for the night shift custodians at Texas A&M-University San Antonio.
Blue-collar uniforms walk the halls, picking up the mess and keeping the campus clean for the next day. When many people are getting ready for bed, these custodians work every night from 5:00 p.m. to 1:30 a.m.
The custodians work for IQS, Inc, a total of 13 workers. Many have not finished high school. Either they dropped out of high school to support their families, or they just didn’t have enough motivation or financial stability to continue with higher education.
Yet they find themselves cleaning San Antonio’s newest university night after night. Higher education couldn’t be further away, but it’s also part of their daily lives as they wax the floors, clean the counters and the restrooms here.
Michael Zapata, 25, floor tech, is quiet as can be. He listens to his music through his earphones and he stays out of the way, working around students as they pass him by.
He spends his nights mopping the floors, working his way up from floor to floor.
He spends his days caring for his 3-year-old son. Zapata said he works as a custodian to keep up with his bills and support his child.
When Zapata gets home, it’s 2:30 a.m. and even then, he still has to put his restless child to sleep. However, because of the hours Zapata works, he often doesn’t get to spend much time with his son.
“Most of the days I’ll lose time from my son,” he said.
Zapata barely made it through high school and had no aspiration to attend college. Even now, working on campus, Zapata said it never crosses his mind to take courses.
“It’s a waste of time,” he said. “I don’t even pay attention to the students.”
In reality, it’s the financial burden of college that stops Zapata from going. He simply can’t afford tuition while taking care of his family.
“If I didn’t have a son or like anyone else, I would try to do some financial aid. Since I do have a son and a girlfriend, they come first. I’d rather have money for them first and then me later,” he said.
“My family first, that’s how I see it. That’s how my dad [sees it]. Pretty much me working and later if I have enough [money] I’ll do college in the future,” Zapata said.
Mayra Guardiola, 28, housekeeper, also works the night shift on campus. She was born in Nava Coahuila, Mexico. Her father brought her to the states when she was 11 years old.
Spanish is her primary language even though she understands and speaks some English.
She dropped out from Leal Middle school in 2004 because the language barrier was too much for her. She then went back to Mexico when she was notified her grandfather was sick. He died a year and a half later. She came back to the states at the age of 15 when she began cleaning houses and buildings.
Mayra said when working on campus she tries to be friendly when some people talk to her, which is rare. When she sees students studying on campus, it gives her a desire to go back to school to get her GED.
“Me da ganas de ir,” she said.
Not only does Guardiola work the night shifts, but her mother, Josefa Guardiola, 57, works on campus too.
Just like Mayra, Josefa, 57, also dropped out. She was in the 3rd grade at the age of 8. Therefore, they both help and support their family and they also clean for a living. Josefa was born into a family of 10 siblings, she had to stop going to school to help support her family. She’s been living in the states for 20 years.
She said when some students see her, they are friendly and attempt to help her out.
Lupe Guerra, 63, also works in the midst of the night. She dropped out in 8th grade. Looking back, she said it was because she was embarrassed and uncomfortable with her P.E. coach.
Guerra said while the girls would shower and change before class ended, the woman who was the coach would stop and stare at the kids, making her feel uncomfortable. Not only was her school experience a factor, but an unstable relationship with her mother as well led her to ultimately drop out.
Years after dropping out and having children she wanted to get her G.E.D but learned that her 14-year-old son developed a tumor in his head after 2 years of suffering from sinus and headaches.
“My son a had a tumor, and I had to work and take care of my grandmother, too. I was raised by her [so] I didn’t want her in a nursing home and I had to take care of my kids.”
Life didn’t stop her. She enrolled in night school at Fox Tech High School and in 1987 she graduated in cap and gown from Thomas Jefferson High School.
“I was so happy that day,” she said.
Guerra said she’s proud of the students who are attending school because of their ambition to go forward in life. She enjoys her time at work on campus.
“My first home is at home with my family, and when I come here, I call it my second home,” she said.
The father-son duo, “Tony”, 39, and Antonio Castillo, 20 also work the night shift on campus.
Tony is the night supervisor. He was born in Zamora, Michoacán, Mexico. Tony’s parents brought him, along with his brothers, to the United States when was 3 years old and they lived in East Los Angeles before moving to San Antonio. He was 6 years old at the time. Tony now has aspirations to move to Colorado. Along with Antonio, he also has two others, 7 and 9 years old.
Tony has an electrician certificate from Lamson Institute. He said although he has a certificate to work as an electrician, he chooses not to because it’s a health and safety risk with other workers.
He also studied to be a medical assistant at Career Point College, but was unable to finish because of problems with financial aid and student loans. He also attended Gary Job Corp for dental assisting but was also unable to finish because his son, Antonio was about to be born and life took its toll.
“For me, family is number one, no matter what,” he said.
He would like to go back to school to become a medical assistant. He got the idea after working at the University Health System for 13 years.
“I’ve always liked working with people,” he said. “I learned a lot working [at the University Health System].”
Tony learned how to take vitals, keeping his CPR training sharp and also learned how to listen to people. He would also attend conferences the hospital had to learn more information.
Antonio, a housekeeper, graduated from South San Antonio High School in 2015. He’d like to study cyber security. He heard of the program when he was in ROTC his junior year. He also wanted to join the Army or Air Force but he has bad knees.
He said that he hasn’t gone back to school because he has a hard time with motivation.
“For me, the hard part is having the drive for it,” Antonio said.
Because of Tony’s experience, he pushes Antonio to go to school but also look at the best cost for education. He knows that the cyber security field his son would like to go in would pay well enough that his son wouldn’t have to struggle with jobs like they currently work in.
Tony mentioned that students, not only on the A&M-San Antonio campus but others everywhere, forget to have “common courtesy.”
“A lot people going to school feel ‘I’m too good to talk to you, I’m too good to be around you,’ and it’s not about that,” Tony said.
Tony said communication is important, and it feels great to be recognized every once in awhile.
“Some do go up to my fellow co-workers and they see them and thank them,” he said. “They feel good and they’ll come up to me and [tell me] and you see it in their face; it feels great.”