When you think of Safety and Security (S&S), what comes to mind?
For most Union students, they might think frustratingly back to pink parking tickets they have earned over the years, little slips of paper designed to make their lives harder by faceless officers patrolling and disciplining the slightest rulebreaker on campus.
But those faceless officers actually have faces… and names. And one of them is none other than the kind, helpful Elizabeth Atkins.
“I will have worked here four years this March,” Atkins said, smiling as we chatted in the Psychology Suite. We agreed to talk during chapel hour, but she cannot stray too far from the chapel lobby. If there is an emergency, she has to be ready to help, and Atkins, the only female Safety and Security officer and a graduate of Union herself, is not the type of person to take her job lightly.
Atkins attended Union as an undergraduate, coming here for her freshman year before transferring to Chattanooga State. Two years later, she returned, having realized just how special the campus really is.
“Yeah, Union is hard,” she told me. “They have high standards, but they care. That’s something you don’t see at state schools.”
Graduating with a Bachelor of Science in Criminal Justice, her first job was as an S&S officer for Union. Once again, she was drawn back to campus after leaving it––this time as an officer.
Curious, I asked her why she came back to Union. Atkins smiled wryly, hesitating for a moment.
“Most of the time… Most of the time I like the interaction with students. It’s not the same every day. You don’t know what the problem is you’re gonna’ face each day,” she paused. “And it’s less dangerous than being a cop, but I’m able to still get experience from it. Working here is a good introduction to criminal justice and law enforcement.”
While employed at S&S, she has been working towards a master’s degree in Social Work. “I want to be a child advocate,” Atkins said.
From what I can tell, she seems like the perfect candidate––kind, empathic, understanding and caring.
Johnny Jines, head of Safety and Security, told me later that afternoon that Atkins is involved in a number of different on-campus activities, one of which is the Carl Perkins Christmas Child event. During the event, volunteers spend time with children who are experiencing or have experienced abuse.
“She’s a mentor for it every year,” Jines said proudly, “helping those kids open gifts and hanging out with them.” And that is not the only kind word Jines has to say about Atkins. When asked about her, he was more than eager to share his enthusiasm for the officer.
“With Elizabeth, she doesn’t constantly need to be told to get something done––she’s usually the one telling me when something needs to be done. She’s very proactive,” Genes said. “She does a bang-up, super job, and I would trust her with anything that I give her.”
Those qualities that Jines so admires in Atkins, however, are ones some people at Union––namely, those with pink slips on their windshields––may not look so fondly upon. When asked her response to those who speak out against Safety and Security, Atkins took her time to answer. When she spoke, her voice was soft but firm.
“[Safety and Security] is not here as an authority over you. We strive to connect with students here because we want that relationship between us and the students,” Atkins looked at me. “We want you to feel safe and comfortable if you need help.”
There’s a reason, after all, that new students are told to put S&S’s number into their phones during their first week of school. The team is here to help students, whether they are changing a tire or keeping watch at the gate list any “ne’er-do-wells” (as Jines called suspicious persons) enter. They perform these duties constantly, regardless of if we take the time to notice.
“One time,” Jines told me, “one guy punctured two tires right before he had to attend an event. We had some guys [on Safety and Security] take off the tires, run across the street to Discount Tires, and get him taken care of by the time his event was over. He drove back to Memphis after,” he paused, then smiles. “Elizabeth was in charge of that operation.”
Not only is S&S always on the lookout for ways to help students but they also implement initiatives to avoid unsafe situations entirely.
“We have a lot of preventative programs, especially for alcohol and drug abuse,” Atkins said. “We also make the domestic violence stall flyers.”
Atkins even shared that it is the S&S team who salts the campus, keeping stairs and sidewalks safe to walk on after icy nights. They did so just two weeks ago after the power outage, making it possible for students to trek around school without fear of slipping.
In addition to helping out with all of the active faces of the job, Atkins is responsible for an important part of the clerical work for S&S.
An officer who had formerly done federally mandated tasks such as submitting statistics and reports left, and Jines needed someone capable who could take on that role as well as the role of a full-time officer. He approached Elizabeth, and she was more than happy to accept.
“She’s a real go-getter, and she’s done a great job,” Jines said. “She’s a very valuable member of our team.”
The job description for a Safety and Security officer describes the position as one with “the goal of creating an environment in which all members of the university community feel safe and served.” Elizabeth Atkins truly embodies this purpose, constantly on the watch for how she can help those around her––student or officer, stranger or friend.