There Is Value in Every Person

Essay published in This I Believe: Philadelphia (The History Press, 2015)

Also appearing with audio version on thisibelieve.org, and on the This I Believe podcast, December 14, 2015


I believe that life’s toughest lessons are best learned through personal experience. Let me tell you a story.

Throughout my childhood, my grandmother provided me with unconditional love but always reminded me that “you are no better than anyone else, but you are also just as good as anyone.” To her, it was important to treat others with dignity, no matter what their position in the world, and by doing so, you would earn respect in return.

I thought I knew what she meant, but I guess I never really understood why she was always encouraging me to treat everyone with dignity no matter their station in life.

That was until I was seventeen and got a summer job as a janitor cleaning the restrooms in some local factories in my hometown. It was a humbling experience for me. I learned firsthand what it was like to be “invisible” as I scrubbed floors and toilets and watched people walk right by me and not even recognize my presence. There were even people I knew from my childhood who worked in the factories who seemed not to remember my name. It outraged me that people couldn’t see past my job and my uniform to recognize who I was as a person. This made me feel angry and wanting to strike out at those who were treating me so poorly.

When I complained to my grandmother, she reminded me to never forget the feeling of being “invisible” and to do the best job I could because it was still my work and in that I should take pride. She also stated that it would make me a better man some day.

Make me a better man someday? She must be joking, I thought to myself. But I needed the job to pay for college and there were few other jobs available, so I bit my tongue and kept on working as best I could for the rest of the summer.

Eventually, I learned to always take pride in my own work and to respect the work of others. I pledged I would never become so self-absorbed with my own importance in life to not personally pay attention to others who might not have the same title, the same position, or the same good fortune as me.

That experience influenced me profoundly. Today, when I am asked what job helped prepare me to assume the leadership of a major metropolitan university, I tell people it was my summer job cleaning restrooms. Not the work itself, but the whole job experience. It shaped me as a man and, down the road, as an educator.

I believe that students, and all young people, should get out of their comfort zones and get deeply involved in different work and community experiences. It’s essential for people to find value in every person, no matter who they are or what they do for a living.

Sure, you can learn facts from books and by taking tests, but I seek the lessons that can only be understood by walking in a lot of different shoes.

Once again, I think my grandmother was right.

James T. Harris is the grandson of Mollie Lind Harris and is president emeritus of Widener University. He currently serves as the president of the University of San Diego.

This I Believe: Philadelphia