Another Side of Dartmouth: Alex Battison Juggles Late Night Shifts With Studying Math

by Veselin Nanov | 4/18/18 2:35am


Courtesy of Alex Battison

Alex Battison was 20 years old when he started working at Collis Café. He had dropped out of Norwich University, a private military college in Vermont, a couple of months earlier and was hired by the College through a temp agency. I met Alex in my Math 3 class last term, five years after he first came to the College. Alex’s experiences at Dartmouth have revealed some interesting facts about the nature of our school.

Alex shared the story of his time at Dartmouth on a grey Friday afternoon, two hours before the start of his Collis Late Night shift. I found him in the kitchen next to One Wheelock as he was preparing the stations for that night. We had been part of the same study group, so we had spent a number of afternoons together working on problem sets in the winter. It was during those afternoons when Alex told me about his work and background. On the first day of class, I had noticed that he was carrying a key chain with a car key on it. I found that slightly peculiar, since most Dartmouth students live on campus and rarely use personal vehicles to commute to class. Alex also stood out as slightly older than everyone else in the room, so I thought he might be a senior living in an apartment further away from the College. During introductions, he mentioned that he was from the area, which made me believe that he might be living at home and commuting to Dartmouth every day, where such a living situation could prevent one from fully integrating into life at the College. At the same time, I had been at Dartmouth long enough to recognize the faces of many ’18’s, and I had never seen Alex before. I was slightly intrigued, but I didn’t want to pry, so I pushed those questions to the back of my mind and tried to focus on integrals.

A couple of weeks later, I was assigned to a study group with Alex. We walked out of Haldeman and headed in the same direction after working through a problem set together. I was heading to work at Occom Pond. He had to walk to his car at the Dewey parking lot. On the way, I exclaimed, “I have so much homework that I don’t know if I will be able to finish it after I am done at work.”

Alex nodded in understanding. He said that he had gone to bed at 4 a.m. last night after his shift at Collis had finished and that he worked the late night shift five nights a week.

In my head, I calculated that he must average about 45 hours a week of work at Collis. That was three times as much as I worked. I quickly realized that with such a work commitment and a full course load, he should look permanently exhausted. Instead, he was quite cheerful and quickly solved his part of the problem set. Alex must have noticed the look of confusion on my face. He chuckled and then added that he was not actually an undergraduate student. Before I could ask any more questions, he explained that instead he was a full-time employee at Collis, and the College paid for him to take one class each term. The conversation that followed added nuance to my standpoint on Dartmouth, what the College stands for in the Upper Valley and my image of undergraduates, who both stumble drunk and hungry through Collis on Friday night and tackle advanced math equations on weekdays.

Alex grew up in Fairlee, a picturesque town in Vermont with a population of around 1,000 — about four times less than the undergraduate student body at Dartmouth. The median household income in Hanover ($113,925) is nearly twice that in Fairlee ($65,905) according to estimates. The data illustrates the large contrast between the place where Alex grew up and the environment in which he has been working for the last five years. Economically and demographically, Hanover is so distinct from Fairlee that Alex’s exclamation — “Dartmouth is on another planet compared to most places around here!” ­— is not surprising at all.

Alex worked two jobs simultaneously in kitchens in Fairlee to provide for himself before he came to work at the College. One of the restaurants he worked at was put up for sale, which forced Alex to look for additional work to cover his living expenses.

“I actually think it is a good thing that the business I worked for went through because I ended up working here and making much more money,” Alex commented when I asked him about the process of finding work at Dartmouth.

At first, Alex was hired as a temporary worker through an agency. At that time, the College kept a lot of temporary workers at Collis for extended periods of time without offering them benefits, Alex said. He recalls that around the time when the Affordable Care Act went into effect, most of the temporary employees were laid off. Seven, among them Alex, were hired as full-time workers for the Late Night shift. Full-time employment opened the doors to a number of benefits, among them the Grant-In-Aid program that allows employees to enroll in up to one course per term free of charge.

Alex learned about the program last year.

“My supervisor mentioned it off-hand … There are a lot of good benefits, but it is not always spelled out for you easily,” he said. “You have to find them.”

It appears that many employees are either not familiar with or do not want to enroll themselves in the Grant-In-Aid program. According to an email statement from associate dean of student affairs Katherine Burke, only one or two employees take advantage of the program annually. Alex mentioned that to his knowledge, he was the only employee taking classes during the winter. While many employees have commitments to family or other occupations that prevent them from committing the time to do coursework, Alex shared that other employees at Collis who learned about the program through him became interested in taking classes. And there is good reason for interest.

“Dartmouth gives you this very valuable benefit, especially for people like me who do not have a degree but are already working at the College,” Alex said. “It is a very valuable benefit because it contributes to your education, which is the best predictor of your life-long earnings.”

Full-time, benefited employees have to complete a short application process in order to get into the program, which requires approval from the Office of Human Resources. Edwin Leavitt at the Office of Student Affairs runs the Special Community Student program and accepts applications for the Grant-In-Aid. Employees receive transferable credit for the classes they take. However, as Alex pointed out, joining the Grant-In-Aid Program does not guarantee acceptance to an undergraduate program of study at Dartmouth.

“You get credits for the classes, but you are not a full-time student,” he clarified.

The fact that completing coursework at Dartmouth does not guarantee admission to the College’s undergraduate program does not discourage Alex from pursuing his dream of obtaining a mathematics degree.

“That is the ultimate goal. A math degree is an incredibly versatile science degree,” he said. “It’s a good job-getting degree.”

To complete all credits for an undergraduate degree, an employee would have to spend approximately nine years taking one class each term (assuming they worked year-round). Alex has completed both Math 3 and Math 8 so far. If an employee scores below a “C” for any given class, they lose the benefit of taking any further classes. A “C” might not be out of grasp for most undergraduates who can commit multiple hours a day to their academics, but it is challenging for someone who also has a full-time job.

“It’s hard to balance work and school if you work a late night shift,” Alex said. “I get home at four in the morning five nights a week. This term I had to drop a class because it was too early.”

Alex launched into the program as soon as he learned about it, so it certainly was irritating to drop a class and miss a term when he could be furthering his goal. Yet for him, the stakes are so high that the risk of getting a bad grade due to poor rest is just not worth it.

Alex looks into the future with the hope that he can gain acceptance at Dartmouth when he completes all freshmen and sophomore classes, so that he can afford the degree. He is conscious of the high cost of a Dartmouth education and worries that even if gets admitted to the College, “I might just have a degree for which I have to pay loans forever.” That worry is reflected in his plan to save up while working at Collis so that he can afford a college education. Alex is also looking at options to retake standardized tests and build up a strong application.

Despite the uncertainty and challenges that lie ahead of him, he remains optimistic.

“I have a stable job, I can save easily,” Alex said. “This is the best shot at a good degree that I am going to have, so I am taking it.”

Alex did not always have the same drive. During high school, he had little idea about what he wanted to do with his life. His brother got through high school because he had the drive to become a teacher, Alex said. On the other hand, Alex wanted to do something with science but did not find a mentor to guide him through the options.

“I did not like math at all then … Now I attack it with much more enthusiasm because it is of higher importance to me,” he said.

After he graduated from high school, he took a year off before he enrolled at Norwich University. He stumbled upon Norwich at a college fair and embraced the idea of getting a degree that would lead to a stable job as an officer in the army. He also found an appeal in a “relatively hands-on job” and the opportunity to attend college for free if he contracted with the army. The year Alex spent at Norwich University gave him a unique perspective on the contrast between a military institution and a liberal arts college such as Dartmouth.

“Norwich and Dartmouth are stark opposites,” he said.

The former is incredibly strict. For the first few months, students at Norwich are not allowed to speak outside of academic buildings, except when they are spoken to by a superior. Lights go off at 10 p.m. Wake up call is at 5:30 a.m. If a student is discovered with alcohol in their possession, they are subject to disciplinary action.

“They held exams at 2 a.m.,” Alex said. “They did not care.”

Despite the strict discipline, Norwich provided Alex with the resources he needed to pursue a degree in geology. The school also maintained an environment where a good work ethic, self-control and mutual respect were rewarded. Alex pointed out that his cadre went out of their way to arrange his leave papers when a death in the family occurred.

A couple of months after he dropped out of Norwich, Alex started working at Collis and noticed the difference immediately.

“At Dartmouth, it is all about learning,” he said. “They give students everything they could possibly need and more. At Norwich, they give you the necessities.”

The College has much more funds and attracts a wealthier student body. That, however, also has its setbacks.

Alex quickly realized that most students he would have to interact with on a late night shift are intoxicated. Many of them steal. On a number of occasions, he has witnessed an ambulance team taking care of someone who had tripped and harmed themselves because they were drunk.

“Dartmouth students seemed, like, happy-go-lucky,” he said.

It is not surprising that Alex got this impression considering the level of affluence many students have and the excessive drinking that is part of the social culture here.

“I got a better opinion of Dartmouth students when I started taking classes with them,” he said.

Here, Alex described the duality of a Dartmouth student that eludes many of them, despite being part of a community characterized by this very duality. Many are passionate about academics, but equally excited to participate in a party culture that often justifies the loss of self-control. And while this might not characterize all Dartmouth students, it does characterize a defining group of students that is large enough and vocal enough to shape the opinions of outside observers such as Alex. Theft is common, not only at dining locations but also at frat basements. People even steal bikes, despite the fact that there are multiple ways to get an affordable bike in the Upper Valley. Again, not all Dartmouth students steal, just as not all Dartmouth students participate in excessive drinking. But theft and belligerence speak loudly, especially when we go to a College that “gives you everything you could possibly need and more,” as Alex says.

Alex, unlike many of the employees during the Late Night Shift, has had the chance to see Dartmouth students in a far better light in class. However, the interactions many of his colleagues have with students is limited to times when they are at their worst.

Alex appreciates the opportunities that working at Dartmouth has brought into his life and strives to make the most of them. He can work and go to school at the same place where he feels supported. The Grant-In-Aid program embodies Dartmouth’s effort to provide members of its community with access to the premium education at the core of the institution. The story Alex shared illustrates the complexities of the institution. That grey Friday afternoon two weeks ago, I walked out of the interview with a slight sense of unease.

Alex also firmly believes that he can get the opportunity to matriculate at the College if he puts in the right amount of work. I could not help but question the belief Alex manifested. I do not question it because I doubt the determination he has. I question it because I know that getting into Dartmouth depends on many factors, and luck might just turn against you at the wrong point in time. Alex is on the pursuit of happiness and prosperity. I do not believe that these are contingent upon the institutions one belongs to. They do, however, depend upon the character one embodies and the respect one has for oneself and one’s surrounding peers.

Correction appended (April 18, 2018): This article has been updated to more accurately characterize the difference in median income between Fairlee and Hanover.