Photo of Dawn Roberson
Dawn Roberson

Celebrating unsung heroes: Meet one custodian who keeps our campus in tip-top shape

From watching a goose raise her goslings on a patio overlooking Bellflower Road to witnessing students she befriended walk at commencement, custodian Dawn Roberson has had a front-row seat to the heartwarming and transformative moments that make the Case Western Reserve University campus more than just buildings and classrooms.

Roberson works on the custodial staff in the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences, but sees her job as going far beyond that of a custodian—she’s a silent guardian, ensuring the university remains not just clean, but also secure. To her, that’s particularly important, as her shift ends at 11 p.m. and students often study in her building after hours.

“I take the safety of the staff [and students] very seriously,” Roberson explained. “Being that I work here, I pretty much know who comes in and out—and who’s a student and who is not.” 

While exemplary, Roberson’s story is not out of the ordinary. Today, on National Custodians Day (Oct. 2), The Daily is recognizing Roberson and the dozens of other custodians at the university who play a crucial role in maintaining the cleanliness, functionality and safety of our campus.

Rising to the top

Before her shift even begins at 3 p.m., Roberson can be spotted on campus, catching up with her supervisor, Christal Thomas, and meticulously preparing for another night of work.

As the second-shift north campus group lead, Roberson is responsible for maintaining supervisory duties while Thomas is away, assisting with training, call-off coverage and overseeing staff, along with her regular responsibilities.

Roberson started working at the university in 2021 and, according to Thomas, “made tremendous strides” in a short time, eventually prompting her to take on a leadership role. Thomas believes it was Roberson’s professionalism, positive attitude, integrity and impeccable communication skills that made her a distinguished member of the custodial team.

“What stood out most to me is that [Dawn showed] leadership early on—she showed how experienced and professional she is,” noted Thomas. “Dawn volunteers her assistance on a regular basis; most of the time she has taken on new tasks without being asked.”

Prior to starting her journey at Case Western Reserve, Roberson served as a housekeeping supervisor at the Cleveland Clinic Guesthouse, during which time she was responsible for inspecting rooms after attendants finished their work. When the Guesthouse closed to make way for CWRU’s Health Education Campus, Roberson was left contemplating next steps.

“I always heard about [CWRU]. A lot of places are hard to get into. My friend offered to recommend me and I was like, ‘I really don’t like people recommending me for jobs,’ I try to get in on my own. So I applied, and I got in,” Roberson recalled with a sense of pride.

Tidying in tune

As she gathered her well-stocked custodial cart and strapped on her blue cleaning gloves on a Wednesday afternoon, Roberson explained what motivates her to tackle her daunting to-do list. Most days she’ll have her earbuds in, listening to any and all music—as long as it’s positive and uplifting. Lately she’s been enjoying the smooth sounds of Teddy Swims, known for blending R&B, soul, country and pop.

“Music is what keeps me going sometimes, and affirmations on YouTube, like: ‘I am powerful, I am strong,’” Roberson explained.

Though music serves as the soundtrack to Roberson’s shifts, it’s the connections she’s formed with the faculty, staff and students who frequent the building—and even their families—that keep her coming back. 

From meeting the children of faculty members to receiving personal gifts from those who work in the building, Roberson has cultivated friendships that extend beyond her role as a custodian. Case in point: Earlier this year, a group of Mandel School students asked if Roberson would be attending commencement.

“This year when they held commencement, I was here and everyone was happy to see me,” Roberson remembered with a warm smile. “We just hung out, talked a little bit; the students introduced me to their families. It’s a proud moment to see them accomplish their goals and see the day they graduate.”

Roberson’s family is the cornerstone of her life, so it’s no wonder she was honored to be a part of that moment. As the only girl in a family of three brothers, Roberson was excited to have two girls of her own—and elated when they brought her three granddaughters. This summer, she marked her oldest granddaughter’s 12th birthday with a decked-out girls’ night that included pizza, wings, makeovers and a movie viewing whilst snuggled in blankets.

When she’s not working or spending time with family, Roberson indulges in her passion for photography, capturing the beauty of anything that resonates with her, and treasures time spent with her feline friend, Mr. Kitty.

Saying ‘thank you’

As Roberson and her fellow custodial workers at the university receive recognition today, she wants to remind the campus community that it doesn’t take much to show appreciation for those in her profession—not just on National Custodians Day, but any day. 

“Just thank them for their hard work that they do in keeping the building clean and germ free, and thank them that you’re able to come into a nice and clean work environment,” Roberson said. “A ‘thank you’ can go a long way.”

Learn more about Custodial Services at Case Western Reserve University—and don’t forget to thank a custodian!