Finding a table in the dining hall is not as easy as one may think; finding a table is like hunting your prey, with predators at each and every corner, standing between you and your meal.

Those round tables–you know the ones I am talking about. I am talking about the four big ones directly in the front with about eight chairs around them. Do not dare to sit there. Those are for the athletes. The men’s sports teams typically sit at those tables, using all of them and often dragging chairs from other tables to fit more of their teammates. And sometimes they spill out into the ends of the first couple of long tables as well. Once I sat at one of those tables with my friends because we were a large group and the table was open. The athletes looked like lost puppies trying to find a new place to sit. I heard a rumor that there is always one person from a team at one of the tables–they alternate who sits there during each hour each day to make sure that they can always sit at “their table.”

There are more round tables a little further back, but those are also always taken. Most commonly these tables are appropriated by a women’s sports team, although sometimes sorority girls claim these spots, and occasionally more members of a men’s sports team that couldn’t fit with the rest of their team. It’s prime group seating and groups in letters or labels have the unspoken privilege of claiming them. I mean you cannot sit here if you are alone; how dare you take up a table meant for eight as a solo. Of course you are certainly welcome to try it–especially if you want to face the wrath and glares of almost everyone entering or already in the dining hall. Otherwise, find somewhere else to sit.

The long tables are always a viable option, but do you have a backpack with you? There is almost no space between these tables so if you put it on the floor it will get kicked or stepped on. The back of your chair? Knocked off. You can always put it on the chair next to you, but then you’re taking up another group’s necessary space. On the other hand, not putting your backpack there means someone in that group also has to sit next to that “loner” who has no friends to get a meal with. Like we all know they should have just grabbed their food to-go.

Wait. Hold on. What day is it? Ever hear the saying from the classic movie Mean Girls “On Wednesdays we wear pink?” Well, at Muhlenberg it’s more like “on Wednesdays we wear letters”; it is sisterhood dinner for two of Muhlenberg’s sororities. Good luck getting a long table on a Wednesday. They send someone at 4:30 to sit and hold those long tables until the group arrives at 5:30. But it’s only one day, right? Let us not forget that there are two other sororities here. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, they do the exact same thing.

There are those tables for two people right against the wall. They are not a bad place to go if you are alone and want to watch some TV while you enjoy your meal; you can place your computer on the far end of the table, food can go in front of you and it is the perfect layout. But these tables are typically taken up by the dining hall staff on their break and are rarely available.

Maybe the back corner? That is definitely a place to eat alone. No one will ever find you here. Not even the staff. As nice and available as this section is, the tables are often left dirty and unaccounted for because really who wants to sit all the way back there? Everything echoes in this section and there is the noise from the stairs–it’s not ideal, but sometimes it has to do. Also, the people who do sit here–especially when alone–are typically watching a TV show or movie on either their phone or laptop with no shame or embarrassment about what people may see on their screen. And let’s just say people watch some interesting things while eating…

But regardless of what you see it is the best location to sit when you feel alone recalls Emma Schwartz. “Freshman year was very lonely for me. Despite coming into Muhlenberg knowing a bunch of people, I always felt apart from the crowd and it was disheartening to see people hang out without me and not even bother asking, and this just pushed me further into my shell.” Knowing that Greek life was not as intense at Muhlenberg as at other big state schools, Emma decided to rush a sorority in hopes of finding a new place for herself. “Joining this group of people in Phi Mu made me feel like for the first time I finally found the people in my life that are exactly like me and I can be myself around them. It has given me more confidence to be myself, and lots of opportunities to grow as a person and as a leader; most importantly, it has given me the friends I didn’t have freshman year, and I can honestly say that the strong bond between myself and other people in the sorority really convinced me to stay at Muhlenberg.”

While cliques and groups can make someone feel alone and isolated they actually serve a social and developmental purpose. Cliques and crowds are groups defined by labels whose members often participate in similar activities or act the same way whether or not they spend time together. Rowena Crabbe, assistant professor of marketing at Virginia Tech, recently asked ten focus groups of college-bound students to look back on their high school experience with social groups, specifically the social hierarchy of these groups. Crabbe found that among all focus groups, labels for the same nine crowds and three types of individuals without crowds were consistent. The groups were labeled and marked with key characteristics as follows: 

  • Populars: rich and/or attractive students; well-known; known to party
  • Jocks: affiliated with a sports team; well-known; known to party
  • Good-ats: well-rounded and well-liked
  • Fine-arts: skilled in an artistic endeavor
  • Brains: excel academically and take advanced classes
  • Floaters: float between groups
  • Normals: unknown, invisible
  • Druggies/Stoners: use (and sometimes distribute) marijuana and/or other drugs
  • Emo/Goths: dark dress; scremo music
  • Anime/Manga: love Japanese video games and graphic novels
  • Loners: keep to themselves; low self-esteem
  • Race-ethnicity: members of a non-White racial-ethnic group

The study subjects not only created similar labels for these groups, they also uniformly ranked these different groups in the social hierarchy, meaning that the groups higher on that list had a smaller difference in social status between members, in addition to being viewed as having higher societal status among their peers. However, while these cliques make up much of the high school experience, they also help young adults create an identity during their college years.  

Almost everyone you speak to at Muhlenberg, or any college, is a member of some form of a clique. These can range from clubs to Greek life to athletics, and when introducing themselves to others on campus students use the labels of these groups to define who they are. The social identity theory proposed by psychologists Henri Tajfel and John Turner suggests that a person’s identity is made up of their affiliations to different social groups. Thus these groups make up a large part of a person’s pride and self esteem and more specifically how our concepts of self are based on membership in a group.   

Each individual also has a personal identity, the unique way they define themselves. Together, one’s social identity and personal identity make up one’s self-concept, or how we see ourselves in the world. This idea is known as the self-categorization theory and it recognizes that people are both individuals and group members, explaining how and when people will define themselves as individual and group entities and its implications. Ultimately, the theory explains why we engage in activities the way we do and helps us find our place in the world.

“Phi Mu is like a dream for me,” said Emma. “A lot of people like to [trash] sororities because they think you pay for your friends. Yes, we have dues, but we’re not connected to each other because we’re paying to be a part of the same group. we’re connected because we are like minded individuals who chose the other people to be a part of our sisterhood.” Being a part of Phi Mu is a group that feeds into who Emma is. “I realized I can be weird and awkward but confident in myself and in who I am.” 

Emma found her group; I, however, still wander around the dining hall. I look toward the wall of windows on the opposite side of the dining hall. What about sitting there? If you want to “work” (also known as people-watch), that is where to sit. You can sit facing the entire dining hall with your computer screen facing you so no one can see your screen. You look focused, but ultimately it allows you to completely procrastinate when the dining hall is full and crowded. Some people stay there all day–when it’s empty you can actually get work done. The tables are big enough for you to spread out all your readings, notes, and writing equipment. There are outlets nearby for both your phone and your computer AND if you get hungry you can squeeze some food on there too. Plus if it’s sunny out, the sunshine adds just the right lighting without providing a glare.

The seating that is the envy of the dining hall are the couches in the back; it is as if you were eating in your own living room or a nice coffee shop and are located right up against the burning fire in the fireplace, below that “M” of glory. As badly as you may want to sit there, my advice: DO NOT. This seating is reserved solely for the theater majors. Quite often the couches are empty, but it is a known fact that sitting there will put you on their bad side–and with a school so small who needs enemies. If you sit there, expect a mob of theater majors to pile around you. They expect it to be empty. You sit, they swarm. Not directly at you but keep in mind they are theater majors so that means a dramatic reaction.

If you didn’t go to the gym this week you could make up for it by sitting upstairs. Walk up to get a table, down to get food, up to sit, down to get a larger variety of drinks, up to eat, down for dessert, up to eat dessert and then down again to leave. Want soup? Good luck getting up the stairs without spilling any. However, this is also a good spot to people-watch because you can see everything–and I mean everything. Despite this, the upstairs is actually the least desirable  place to sit. People who are truly alone are the ones who venture up there to avoid the noise and chaos that is the Woods Dining Commons. You can usually find a table, but if you are with friends, try not to make a peep–and make sure you silence all technology or you will face the wrath of the humanities majors trying to get their readings completed before racing to their classes.

So, is there any place left? There are the good ’ole four-person round tables. There are loads of them surrounding the couches, along with two more large round tables. It is the perfect size table for any small group of four–maybe five if you can find an extra chair to use. You can sit alone with a place for your backpack and enough space on the table for everything you need to fit. The tables may be a little close together, but the pros outweigh the cons. These tables are open to everyone and, because of this, it is the busiest area of the dining hall. You are lucky if you get here early enough or arrive just as people are finishing. And if you do get to sit here expect a lot of people to hover while you eat, hoping you will finish sooner just by sensing your energy above them.

Last but not least, the few round tables in the front. Four to be exact. Well, actually three. One is always taken by one of the rabbis from the Nosh working on the menu for next week and the layout for the online calendar. There is also a table for two. But really who wants to sit in any of these? There is one right in front but everyone can see you here–you are completely visible to everyone entering the dining hall. In addition, the table for two is awkwardly located against a pillar and the chairs are very tight, cramped by the backs of seats from the nearby tables of people who refuse to scoot their chair in just a speck more. The other two tables are nice for sitting, but they are always either scattered with used napkins or a few forgotten cups from freshmen who possibly forgot their trash, but more likely than not simply could not be bothered to throw it away. But if one of these spots is open, as dirty as it is, I would take it.

Your hunger has now escalated, you’ve hunted and circled and finally there is a table. You race, throw your stuff down, take a deep breath and look around at the rest of the hunters that you just beat to the catch.

Photo by Cole Geissler

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