One of the most important things I've learned from this job is that everything is about change; life is about change. I started here out of high school back in the '70s. Back then, we had to punch a time card. Now we sign in electronically. We used to work with ammonia and all sorts of harsh chemicals. Today everything has a "green seal." Before, each person was responsible for cleaning and mopping 15,000 square feet per shift. We have floor-scrubbing machines now, and each employee is responsible for 25,000 square feet. I have 54 employees, not all are full-time, so it would be hard to say off the top of my head how many total square feet we clean every day. But I can tell you this: It's a lot.

There have been other changes. When I first started, there were some people working here who could barely read and write. Because of this economy, we now have people here with college degrees—it's awful. I have people working two or three jobs, getting off here at 11:30 at night and then going to work somewhere else until four or five o'clock in the morning. I don't know how they do it. But look at how much gas costs or a loaf of bread. A dollar won't get you a good candy bar anymore.

Hattie Agee is a senior manager for housekeeping within the facilities management department at U.Va. She lives in Charlottesville. Photo by Stephanie Gross
When I began, it was mostly African Americans doing the work. Today, we have a mix of everybody—white, Korean, Chinese, Puerto Rican, Afghans, Croats, Africans. It makes it a much more interesting place to work. Especially listening to some of the people from Afghanistan, telling stories about the Taliban. One woman told me a story about how her son was out playing and picked up a hand grenade because he thought it was a toy and it blew up. You have people like that working right here at U.Va. You hear about that stuff on TV, but she brought that to life for me.

And people change; I've learned that too. I think we should be more accepting and willing to give people a chance to show they've changed. I had one guy who was an excellent worker. He would come in 30 to 40 minutes early, and always tell me how grateful he was to have found a job. Then we learned he didn't put on his application that he had multiple convictions. We had to let him go. He begged me to see if there was anything I could do. I had tried and there wasn't. I will never forget the expression on his face when I told him. But people make mistakes—that's why they are called mistakes—and if he did his time, we should have given him a chance. How are people going to get rehabilitated if you tell them you can't have them because of something they've already been punished for? Everybody deserves second chances. We do stupid things when we are young. I've done plenty of dumb things. But if we learn from our mistakes, we deserve another chance.

For all this talk about change, I have to admit that I haven't made many changes in my own life. Thirty-seven years at the same place is proof enough of that. I wonder why I've stayed so long. You think, 'I'll do this for five years,' but we get comfortable where we are and afraid to make a change. I do know I will make a change sooner than my mother. She's 84, Clemmie Lewis. Still comes to work here at U.Va. five days a week, four hours a day. She says it gives her something to do. I am not built like her. I plan on retiring long before I reach her age. Then maybe I will meet a millionaire and we'll go buy a van and travel across the country. That's on my bucket list. And that millionaire doesn't have to come if he doesn't want to. I can do it myself.

There's something else that doesn't change: what being a human being is. People are people regardless of who they are, whether they are black or white, Afghan or Chinese. We all cry. We all laugh, we all need clothing and food and love. Whether you are president of the University or someone cleaning here, we all have problems. We all need someone to talk to. We all have something we are dealing with.

Although we all change, and life is all about change, we are all the same.

That's what I've learned.