In Plain Sight: What I Learned from Shadowing Penn Security Guards

This article was written by Guest Contributor Hadriana Lowenkron C'22.

The last thing my mom told me on freshman move-in-day was: “Don’t act as if people exist just to serve you. Regardless of whether these security guards open doors for you or just sit there, you better acknowledge them and treat them with the respect that human beings deserve.”

Stunned, and frankly a little disappointed that she felt the need to tell me this, I responded immediately, “Of course I will, Mom.”

“I know you will,” she said, and then sighed. “I just don’t know about everybody else.”  With that, she hugged and kissed me goodbye, hopped into our Prius, and disappeared down Spruce Street.

Unlike much of what my mom tells me, which tends to go in one ear and out the other, these words have continued to stick with me. I’ve made it my goal to observe the interactions — or lack thereof — between Penn students and Penn staff, especially the security guards.

At first, my observations consisted of no more than opening my eyes and ears; if I was in line to put in my PAC code to get into the Quad or a dining hall, I looked for which students (if any) interacted with the guards, and if so, who initiated the interactions.

Not particularly satisfied with that experiment, and, according to my mom, in desperate need of working on the whole “put yourself in other people’s shoes” thing, I decided to step it up a notch.

It was Monday, January 29. I asked my friend Dom, who works at the front desk at King’s Court — a residence hall known for its prison-like architecture and freshmen who are still bitter about not getting to live in the Quad — if she thought the security guard she works with would mind if I sat with her and observed student comings and goings. Dom responded immediately, “Of course! Linda* and I are tight. She’s super nice!”

Perhaps I should have known from that comment that I picked the outlier — the one guard who I later found out makes an effort to know the names of everyone who lives in the building, and whose gregariousness extends well beyond small talk (so much so that she even invited some of the students over to her house for Thanksgiving!).

I head over to King’s Court the next day, excited to begin my observations. On the walk over, I considered what I wanted my project to entail. Do I want to highlight specific interactions? Count how many people enter and exit and note the percentage of those who interact? Both? I decide on both.

It takes only 15 minutes before I realize that something is off: in the short period of time that I had been sitting at the desk, I saw more interactions than I’ve seen in my four months at Penn. My initial thought was to abort the mission and pick another guard, because clearly with my luck, I’ve managed to choose the wrong one. But I decide to stick it out until the end of her shift.

It’s snowing out, and the high is 20 degrees, although it feels like 0. One student after the next comes in, the snow dampening their clothes, the cold turning their fingers white, and their noses red. Linda makes small talk, proudly addressing the students whom she knows by their names, and the others with a casual yet endearing “kid.” I’m disappointed to observe that the students barely eke out more than two words in response, and never do they initiate.

Why is this? Is it because they are afraid of the guards? Are they just shy or in a rush? I make a mental note to ask some students this later.

During the occasional period when there’s a lull in the traffic, Linda and I talk. I ask her if there are any patterns she notices in the students who interact with her or her colleagues.

“I expected the Black students to interact with me because the Black community is small and should be united,” she says. “But many of the people who don’t acknowledge my existence are Black.”

This isn’t shocking to me. I’ve noticed since being here that there is definitely a divide in the Black community, a divide closely tied to socioeconomic status. Considering that there are Black students at Penn who don’t acknowledge me or my other non-wealthy Black friends — and we’re Penn students just like them — it is not surprising that they don’t acknowledge the Black staff, whom I assume they perceive to be beneath them.

The shift ends, and I’m dissatisfied with what I’ve seen. I decide to find another guard to sit with, this time at Hill Residence. I’m excited because I feel that this shift will give me what I’m looking for, but I know the results will be jarring.

When you walk into Hill, two lines form behind each PAC code machine. Two glass walls sandwich the lines, with the security guard sitting behind the glass wall on the right. Whereas the guard in King’s Court sits directly next to the PAC code machine, making one’s decision to ignore him/her painfully obvious, the glass wall in Hill provides a barrier, excusing the student (and the guard) from having to ever interact.

I take my seat and begin to observe, cryptically informing this guard, as I had done with Linda, that I’m people-watching for a class project so that I don’t create anything artificial.

Hill is a lot busier, but I’ve never felt lonelier. It’s lunchtime, and since there’s a dining hall within Hill, students are entering and exiting at an overwhelming rate. But there is very limited interaction between the students and the guard (or me). Even during the few awkward seconds it takes to put in the four-digit code, nothing. Students avert their eyes to their phones, the exit sign, or the floor — anything to avoid looking in our direction. I guess the tile patterns must be really interesting.

Another guard who must have been on a break comes over and the guard I’m with immediately lights up. They talk with an enthusiasm and energy that I haven’t seen the entire shift, and I can tell that this is the only meaningful interaction “my guard” gets all day.

The other guard leaves and we return to our silence. I’ve become so used to our being ignored that the one time someone smiles at us, I jump in surprise. I realize it’s my friend Tati.

I leave the shift feeling incredibly unsettled. Over the two days I spent observing, I counted 113 people entering/leaving the building. A mere 26 interacted with the security guards.

That’s when I realized that whoever said “it’s lonely at the top” has never been at what they no doubt would derisively consider the bottom.

*Name changed for privacy reasons.