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Housekeeper’s letter to incoming students has a message for everyone

| Senior Scene Editor

During freshman move-in at the end of August, Washington University surged unexpectedly in the internet news sphere. It wasn’t due to a University press release or a professor quoted in a Washington Post article, but to a note left by Draga Orescanin, a housekeeper in the Thomas H. Eliot Residential College on the South 40, for incoming students. When I sat down to talk with Orescanin, she laughed, recalling the sudden fame.

“I didn’t expect that,” she said. “For one night, it was too much for me.”

Draga Orescanin has worked as a housekeeper in the Thomas H. Eliot Residential College for 19 years. Orescanin writes a letter to students every year to mark the new school year.Photo courtesy of Draga Orescanin

Draga Orescanin has worked as a housekeeper in the Thomas H. Eliot Residential College for 19 years. Orescanin writes a letter to students every year to mark the new school year.

Orescanin has made an effort to get to know the students in her residential halls ever since she began working as a housekeeper at the University 19 years ago. She writes a note introducing herself each year, and this fall, a photo of her annual letter was posted on Reddit by the brother of an incoming student. It quickly gained attention, rising to the top of the “front page of the internet,” and was subsequently shared extensively by Wash. U. students on social media.

Orescanin was amused by the many comments on the initial Reddit post, including one that stated, “This is what makes America great.” Orescanin’s daughter, who graduated from Wash. U. in 2012, called her mother to tell her about the Internet fame. It was all so unexpected: Her goal in writing the letter to new students was simply to put them at ease.

“I just do it because I see kids like that, and they feel more at home,” she explained.

Orescanin’s care for her students shines through in more than just one letter, and it is definitely reciprocal. She showed me her collection of countless “No.1 Housekeeper” awards and said that many students write notes back to her, all of which she has kept over the years. One student she especially remembers helped her take out the trash in the dorm each day, but she emphasized her affection for all of her students.

“Every one is priceless,” Orescanin said. “I can’t say one is my favorite, because everyone’s unique.”

Orescanin said she worries about her residents’ mental health in the Wash. U. environment, in addition to going beyond to make them feel comfortable.

“Every year, my concern is that kids [are] getting more depressed,” she said. “When I see those faces, like a mom, I feel so stressed out. So I try to make them feel more comfortable.”

Something she would change about the University is to “make Wash. U. less stressful,” Draga decided. “I think they learn better when they are not under that pressure, and more happy.”

Orescanin’s unique commitment to the students she works with has not gone unnoticed; several years ago, she was interviewed by Peter Magolda for his book “The Lives of Campus Custodians: Insights into Corporatization and Civic Disengagement in the Academy.” In parts of the book, Orescanin, identified with a pseudonym, discusses her experiences emigrating from Croatia (formerly Yugoslavia) in the 1990s and the tumultuous journey that led her to working as a housekeeper at Wash. U., a job she once could not have imagined taking on.

Orescanin lights up with pride when talking about her children, both of whom, she says, are happy in St. Louis—and therefore, so are her and her husband. She loves the Missouri Botanical Garden and plans to stay put in the city she’s called home for nearly two decades.

“I am definitely here. This is my country; this is my town. What was there, we can’t bring back, so we continue on,” she says.

Although she never expected her letter to be read by hundreds of thousands of internet strangers, Orescanin hopes, at least, that those who read it will come away with a positive impression, and her parting advice could be also be a credo to Wash. U. students—especially when they’re interacting with University staff members, like her and her fellow housekeepers.

“Life can be simple if you make it simple; we’re all the same. Be a good person, help each other and help the community where you live,” she said,

In working with 19 years’ worth of South 40 residents, Orescanin has touched thousands of lives and made a lasting impact on our community—the least we students can do is heed her advice and live compassionately.