Short red hair, blue glasses, a solemn and serious gaze and tight, shut lips: this is Olga Chaika, a day custodian for Smith Hall. As soon as she recognized that I was the staff writer from The Record who had called her the night before, her face brightened and she smiled. When she realized she could trust me, a warm gaze replaced her solemn stare, almost transforming her into a different person.
We exchanged each other’s names, asked each other, ‘How are you doing’ and sat on the blue couches in Smith-Traber’s lower lobby. She had a tight grip on the printed interview questions I emailed — the same ones she had practiced with her supervisor, Geoffrey Dolty, earlier that morning, since she worried whether she would be able to understand my English.
Born and raised in Russia, Chaika came to the United States 24 years ago with her Ukrainian husband, Alexander Chaika, and their two children. In Russia, she worked as an engineer. Her husband was a weightlifting coach. Their children were eighteen, fourteen and six years old when they moved.
Her children are now married, and she has four grandchildren. Chaika said she is very proud of her family; her eldest son graduated from the College of DuPage and her daughter, Anya, graduated from Wheaton in 2015. She told me that all of her children were very accomplished with very good jobs. William, who lives in St. Louis, works in information technology, and Anya works as a teacher in Chicagoland with an ESL endorsement in Spanish and English.
To residents of Smith Hall, Chaika and her vacuum are a fixture of the mid-morning shuffle. Her quiet kindness has been observed by those who stop to talk with her during the day.
“[Olga] cares so much about the students here. That’s why she’s here, just to serve the students,” Casey Gupta, a Wheaton sophomore studying business and economics, told me.
Gupta, who grew up speaking Russian as a missionary kid in Ukraine, became close to Chaika while living in Smith. She said her friendship with Chaika allows her to reconnect with a part of her childhood. “It’s a part of you, to be able to speak your other language, and that was something I’ve missed that I didn’t realize,” Gupta said.
Maggie Bergevin, a junior elementary education major with an ESL endorsement, also appreciates Chaika’s presence in Smith. Having worked as a custodian herself, she understands how difficult it can be to clean up after other people.
“She’s always kind and very patient with us,” Bergevin said. “I just love the way she serves our campus. It can be hard cleaning in an underclassmen dorm. She’s very respectful of our spaces. [She] goes out of her way to clean, even if it’s extra messy.”
Chaika has worked as a custodian at Wheaton for sixteen years. During that time she has worked as a night custodian for nine years and a day custodian for the past seven years. She is one of 11 day custodians on a total custodial staff of about 50.
After coming to America on a green card, the Chaikas both had to work multiple jobs to make ends meet. Olga Chaika said her work to support her children was why she took a long time learning English. Chaika said that although her daughter’s Russian is very proficient, she struggles to communicate with her youngest son, as his Russian is very limited.
“Your parents maybe like your nation’s language better, yes?” Chaika suddenly asked. Although I hadn’t mentioned any details from my life or background, she somehow sensed that I was also from a foreign country.
“I’m forgetting my Korean,” I laughed in response. “And then, my mom makes fun of me for forgetting it.”
Much of the interview relied on picking up on phrases, nuances, body language, eye contact and laughter. However, the key ingredient of our conversation was our mutual understanding of the pain and discomfort of living in a foreign country and speaking a foreign language.
“My life, not interesting, eh? It’s the same, everybody. Immigrants have same problems,” Chaika chuckled.
I had prepared to ask Chaika what her experience was like growing up in Russia, but she refused to answer the question. She claimed that she could not compare the life of an engineer in Russia to a custodian in America.
“I’m not telling you about it, because if I have the same job, I can’t tell you how it’s different. Engineer, different here, different in Russia,” Chaika said.
Her workday is spent vacuuming, taking out the trash, replacing paper towel rolls, and other tidying tasks around the shared spaces. Although being a custodian can be a demanding job, she still finds joy working at Wheaton and is grateful for the faith community at Wheaton. Custodial staff, like all other staff, faculty and students, have to affirm the Statement of Faith and the Diversity Statement upon employment.
“I like Wheaton College because it’s a Christian college,” said Chaika. “I like that my children know the Lord now, this is very important. When children go to church, and grandchildren go to church, this is what’s most important. Our job? Work is not our life. When I go to heaven, no work.”
Chaika and her husband became Christians in 1989. They were introduced to Christianity when they met a Christian teacher who invited them to church. Not long after, Chaika and her husband were baptized.
According to Chaika, going to church in Russia wasn’t extremely difficult at the time she became a Christian. Although the church met in a tent instead of a sanctuary, Chaika and her family were able to worship God during those times. Even though Chaika says that other people were trying to destroy the tents during the weekdays, the attackers were not violent to the people who were attending the church.
At Wheaton, Chaika enjoys meeting students who speak Russian or have connections with the Slavic world. Over the years, she has invited Russian-speaking students to her home, preparing Russian food for them. Chaika said that she loves getting to speak Russian over a homemade meal with students, and that she is delighted to meet new students who speak Russian every year. “When I work here, I feel young. Because everybody is young. I like it very much,” she said with a smile.
Chaika said she is glad that she came to America, as the move provided her children better opportunities. She acknowledged that working as a custodian is hard, especially when it means working at night while raising children.
We ended the interview laughing, hoping that work wouldn’t be so difficult in heaven.
“[We’ll have] joyful work,” I said to Olga.
“Joy, just joy,” Olga said, laughing.