Incorporating computer system, Mail Services aims to provide efficient operations

Sophomore Kevin (Zixin) Hong, a mail services employee, helps deliver mail to five student dorms, six days each week. Alex Knapp / The Tufts Daily

Tufts Mail Services, which is located in Hill Hall, provides package and mail handling services for the entire campus.

Sheila Chisholm, the Support and Administrative Services manager of Mail Services, has been at Tufts for 34 years and has seen the Mail Services operation evolve dramatically.

“It’s a very efficient process,” Chisholm said. “Before…we had a manual system, and we just don’t know how we did it with the manual system.”

After looking into the possibility of establishing a multi-phase system involving the Campus Center, bookstore and a central location such as West Hall, it was ultimately determined that Hill Hall was the only space that would have adequate room for what Mail Services would need, Chisholm explained. 

Where we used to be was [the] West Hall basement, which wasn’t enough room for the procedure,” she said. “Down at West Hall, [mail] would need to come through the side window, and coming to this location [at Hill] afforded us the right space to be able to do the function.”

Despite being tucked away, Chisholm is satisfied with the location Mail Services currently occupies. One advantage is the fact that moving into Hill allowed it to integrate computer systems into its process.

“Integrating this computer system closes the loop,” Chisholm said, describing the accuracy afforded by the system.

Mail Services handles parcels for all three Tufts campuses: Medford/Somerville, Grafton and Boston. Because the mail is all sent to one central location, Mail Services receives hundreds or even thousands of packages per day, according to ChisholmShe explained that even before the school year begins, students often send packages to Tufts; during this period last year, Mail Services received around 70,000 packages at once. Volume at this scale can cause problems when space is such a commodity, she added. With a service goal “to provide same day service or within 24 hours service for sorting, delivering and metering mail,” according to the Mail Services website, Mail Services tracks the package from the moment it arrives to guarantee that the package reaches the correct student.

“[In West] we would have to manually write down all these numbers twice,” Chisholm said. “One on the package and one on the card that would go into the mailbox that would be the notification for students that they had a package. Now we scan them in, send an email and the students come by to pick up the package.”

Regardless of how technology makes distributing mail simpler within the Mail Services office, the process from start to finish is still a complicated one, Chisholm explained. If a student orders something that arrives through the United States Postal Service (USPS), it will first arrive to the Medford Post Office, where it is sorted before being sent to Mail Services. From there, the tracking number is carefully logged into the system, and a label is printed with the student’s name, ID number and the date and time the package was received by Tufts.

If a package does not have a tracking number on it when it arrives, Mail Services will assign its own number to the package in addition to labeling it with the student’s information. After each set of 50 packages, emails are sent to those students and the packages are sorted into holding shelves. When a student comes to pick up their items, the Mail Services worker takes their ID to verify the last name and look for all packages that could belong to that student, using the number that the student gives them as a baseline.

To check out a package, the worker rescans the package label and scans the student ID on a card reader to verify that the student is receiving the right package — in other words, “closing the loop,” Chisholm said.

This process is often very accurate, Chisholm said. If there are issues, however, it is usually in the step between the local post office and Tufts. She explained that if a student provides the tracking number for a lost package, Mail Services can work with the local post office to find the package and get it to the student. 

“You’ll have students, not many, who will come in and say, ‘I never got an email about my package,'” Chisholm said. “Then you get the tracking number from them, and if it’s the USPS, I would call the [post office] and ask them, ‘It says in the system it’s been delivered, can you tell me where it was delivered to?’ That way, we would be able to get to the bottom of it a little bit more.”

Issues like these are almost always resolved, Chisholm explained. According to her, the rare case of a package simply not arriving is usually a problem with the vendor, and she suggests that students get in touch with their vendors directly, who are usually accommodating.

“Sometimes, a vendor or an uncle puts on a wrong address, and it might end up down Boston Ave.,” she said. “We would try and work with the [post office] to try and solve that. Every once in a while, the student might have to go back to the vendor and say [the package] was never delivered or it was sent to the wrong place, and usually the vendor will send another one.”

The day is divided into a morning and an evening shift, Chisholm explained, with the day shift dedicated to servicing student pickup, and the evening to finishing sorting the packages that were received that day.

“We’re open from 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., and that has evolved over the years,” Chisholm said. “For example, we used to be open until 5:00 p.m., and that was one of the desires, to have it open a little bit longer…We do so much processing outside of packages, that we wouldn’t have the time to do the process in, and so I decided we should have a 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. at night shift…and that worked out very well the last three years.”

If a package is delivered mid-morning by UPS or FedEx and the volume of mail received is not too excessive, a student can often pick up a package the same day that it is delivered. Packages and envelopes coming from USPS often take longer, as they sometimes do not deliver until 2 p.m., but Mail Services tries to make sure that all envelopes are dropped off on the same afternoon, Chisholm explained.

What happens with mail delivery is that the Post Office sorts the mail by dorm, and we drop off the mail at the 19 halls and the 14 small houses,” Chisholm said. “At the 19 halls we have mail delivery students who put the mail into the boxes…[who try to] drop off the mail by 2:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m.”

One such student worker is sophomore Sofia Estrada, who often sends the standard emails letting students know they have a package. Estrada said that she very much enjoys working at Mail Services. She explained that she especially loves the satisfaction that comes from scanning in packages and letting students know they have something waiting for them. She also enjoys the environment of the Hill Hall headquarters.

“The fun banter makes for an incredibly fun place to work,” Estrada said. “[It is] really fun, really lively.”

Having been both a recipient of mail and worker for Mail Services, Estrada has seen both sides of the process, which gives her a wider perspective on the entire system. Having understood the recipient’s desires, she wishes she could impart on students just how hard the employees of Mail Services work and how dedicated they are to working as fast and efficiently as they can.

“[Working for Mail Services has been] a lesson in empathy,” she said.