Bowdoin students have all received that email sent from Bowdoin DBMail: “You have a(n) item(s) ready for pick up at the Bowdoin Mail Center.” From here, schedule permitting, students make their way over to Smith Union, wait in a meandering line, recite their ID number, flash their OneCard, smile at the mailroom worker as they grab their package et voilà: a parcel of the student’s own.
The experience is fast, efficient and takes five minutes at most. But don’t take it for granted—it wasn’t always like this.
Adorning the walls of Smith, sandwiching the two mail center windows, are rows and rows of weathered, golden-numbered mailboxes. Not long ago, students would open their mailbox with a code to search for a coveted slip with their name on it, which was needed to retrieve a package from the window. Students shared their mailbox with a partner and could make a new friend on campus: their mailbox buddy.
Manager of Campus Services and Logistics Joe Anderson explained that COVID-19 accelerated the Mail Center’s shift toward a more modern and secure system.
“We have made a lot of changes. I think a lot of them were necessary, but they were really accelerated by COVID[-19]. So the big change that students probably really felt was when we got rid of the mailboxes,” Anderson said. “There were a couple of reasons for that: one of them was very specifically COVID[-19] related—we didn’t feel safe having multiple students going into the same mailbox and touching the same things.”
Instead of using mailboxes, the Mail Center has shifted to using students’ inboxes to notify students of their mail. Additionally, instead of picking up packages and letters from a window in Smith Union, students now head to the mailroom annex—formerly the Sail Room—to pick up parcels.
Sitting on the counter of the back room of the Mail Center in front of a backdrop of machines, boxes, bubble wrap and mountains of school store merchandise, Mailing Services Supervisor Sam Woodworth’s eyes glowed as he painted the picture of the community that comprises Bowdoin Mail Services.
In his nearly 16 years working for Bowdoin Mail Services, Woodworth has witnessed the evolution of the Mail Center. The biggest changes, he believes, arrived with COVID-19. The pandemic brought with it a number of challenges relating to the health and safety of workers, along with increases in the number of packages coming into the Mail Center.
“COVID[-19] has created a really dynamic environment. We knew when [the pandemic] hit that our days can change just in a snap of the finger and in a flip of the dime. We might have to do some things differently than what we normally did,” Woodworth said. “I like a challenge. I mean, now we just expect it. We expect that our day is not going to be the normal routine like [we’ve] seen in my previous years.”
Last week, the Mail Center processed 3,161 student items. Anderson pointed out that this high volume of packages means a piece of mail must be processed every 45 seconds in the week during a 40-hour work week.
“Some students order so many packages. It’s just absurd to me, like ten [or more] packages per visit. That’s been crazy, because it’ll be on a regular basis,” Mail Center student worker Emily Grzyb ’22 said.
Luckily for the Mail Center workers, the brunt of the package influx increase has been absorbed by the new, more efficient Mail Center model.
The College has also hired a number of new student workers to cover the increased workload. Thanks to these two changes, the Mail Center hasn’t had to stay open on weekends, as it had in the past.
Grzyb is one of two student workers who has been at the Mail Center since before the pandemic in the fall of 2019.
“It’s really interesting to see how students treat service workers … I haven’t really worked that many jobs where I actually have to deal with people just coming in and being like, ‘Give me what I want,’ or whatever,” Grzyb said. “Seeing both the students and how they interact with those people is sometimes mortifying. It’s just interesting to me how people treat people that are serving them.”
Students interact daily with Mail Center workers—picking up mail, occasionally mailing a package or two—but often have little idea what lies behind the mountain of packages in the Mail Center Annex.
“There’s so much about the Mail Center, and campus services in general, that a lot of people don’t know about,” Woodworth said. “For example, back here, we deliver all the mail and parcel packages for all the staff and faculty. We have a copy center and also have a letter shop.”
For students who work at the Mail Center, the community is close-knit.
“I always wanted to hire more students because I think it’s great for students to have an experience working in an environment like this,” Woodworth said. “We’re hiring more students. They’re just amazing. They’re fantastic. Really, I wish I could hire more.”
Woodworth, along with all of the Mail Center staff, remains invested in making the Mail Center the best it can be from sustainability initiatives to reused packaging to morale boosting activities like dressing up for Halloween together.
“It’s super fun. I really like working at the Mail Center. I feel like I’ve gotten to really know all of the full-time workers or at least know them pretty decently. [The Mail Center staff] are just very interested in students’ lives and maintaining relationships with them,” Grzyb said.
“Any of the students that come aboard become part of our family,” Woodworth said.