"I wasn't going to be able to finish school if I didn't find some way to get it paid for," she told me.
Sorting is tough work—in some jobs, you stand between lines of quick-moving conveyor belts as mail chugs down a chute, when the parcels reach you, you move them into compartments on the conveyor belt as quickly as you can. In other jobs, you take the mail that's fallen into a bag destined for, say, Lincoln, Nebraska, zip up those bags and load them onto a container bound for an airplane. In the summer, the sorting area, located atop the floors and floors of automated machinery at UPS, can get incredibly hot, students told me.
"It's manual labor, definitely," Ziegler said. "At first, it was a big adjustment, I was sore and tired. But I knew it was the only way I was going to get to go to school."
When in school, Ziegler said, her planner was her best friend—she'd write down everything she had to do during the week and plan every minute. Some days, if she got behind on homework, she'd try to finish it when she got off work, around 6 in the morning, and then sleep for a couple hours before doing it all again.
She had to show up at work, but she also had to do well at school: If students get below a "C" they have to repay UPS the tuition for that class. But Ziegler said she was motivated to make the UPS program work.
"Both of my parents were pretty adamant—do this, so you can do better than we did," she told me (neither of her parents graduated from college). "I knew that I had to do it, but there were times I thought I would never make it."
Ziegler worked the night shift for the rest of college, and finished in December with a degree in sociology. Soon after, a job at UPS in the HR department opened up, and she now works for the HR department from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m., five days a week.
She doesn't regret missing the "college experience," she told me; she preferred living at home to living in the dorms, and liked socializing with the people she met at UPS more than those at school.
But Ziegler's school experience was vastly different than the liberal-arts education that Charles Eliot envisioned in his Atlantic article and that has been held up as a model of American education for more than a century. Indeed, Eliot wrote that in order to get a good education, students shouldn't work manual labor while enrolled.
Referring to the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, which at the time had students perform manual labor, Eliot wrote that "the experiment of making manual labor a part of the regular curriculum has been tried, and has failed." Young children may be able to work in factories for half a day and then learn to read and write, Eliot argued, but for advanced instruction, students need more time for intellectual pursuits.
"To be sure, a young man cannot read and write 14 hours a day; but when he cannot be studying books he can be catching butterflies, hunting for flowers and stones, experimenting in a chemical laboratory, practicing mechanical drawing, sharpening his wits in converse with bright associates, or learning manners in ladies' society," he wrote. "Any of these occupations is much better for him than digging potatoes, sawing wood, laying brick, or setting type."