To most Muhlenberg students, the dining hall is a place to relax, socialize and be served. For me, it doubles as a place of work. For each service that I receive as a customer, I also provide as a front of house worker. This swapping of roles affects not only the relationship I have to the food service at my institution, but also to my fellow students with whom I share this communal space.
As a full-time Muhlenberg student and part-time employee of the Sodexo food company, work and school are heavily intertwined. From moment to moment, I ebb and flow between my positionality as a student and my positionality as a service worker; I feel a dramatic difference in how I carry myself in these two spaces.
I feel grounded by having a job alongside school. Even though the dining hall is located on campus, when I go to work I’m transcending the social-academic hive of Muhlenberg. There is a level of diversity amongst this group of people that doesn’t exist in the student body. The women I have befriended here often tell me how lucky I am to be a student and to be moving on. My co-workers are a mixed batch of old and young, people born and raised in Allentown and others who have immigrated to America, each person with varying interests and passions. We have English speakers, Spanish speakers, Arabic speakers and some incredibly valuable multilingual people who help us all understand each other. Despite the language barriers, the job gets done and each day we serve around 2,000 meals to Muhlenberg students, faculty, staff and others who visit.
There are times when I feel like an imposter with my co-workers. I work very few hours compared to others who work day-in and day-out to make a livable wage. I am in the incredibly privileged position to be receiving higher education and gaining intellectual and cultural capital through being a student here. Even being able to speak English is a big advantage in this workplace because easily conversing with managers fosters trust between us and a better ability to advocate for myself as a worker. Despite our differing levels of privilege, while at work, there is an understanding between us; we receive the same treatment from our side of the counter. For me, most days of the week, I get to experience the dining hall from the other side. Those who I serve alongside are often serving me, and this feels strange. Am I the annoying customer who I complain about when I’m in uniform?
Since beginning this job I’ve become hyper-conscious of the ways that I approach service workers in all settings. I have felt the long hours of the arm scooping motion and the dread of panicked customers rushing to get food who look upset that you can’t serve it fast enough. I see a “Me, Me, Me!” mentality show up in the dining hall more than in any other spaces on campus. Being on the receiving end of this influences the way I approach my peers in the classroom, I see them in a different light and this can feel like a social burden.
The most interesting station that I frequently operate is the swipes counter. Imagine spending hours having to say “Good, thanks!” in response to people carelessly spitting out “Hi, how are you?” without looking at you or considering the fact that you have to respond to hundreds of other people who do the same thing. It’s isolating and exhausting. Personally, I only ask people how they are if I care to know what they will say back, no matter what it is. To receive this empty question from strangers steadily is an intense experience that makes me feel annoyed and disheartened. At Muhlenberg, in general, this exchange happens habitually and in my experience it often feels automatic and inauthentic because it occurs even when there’s no opportunity for a conversation to follow. When I’m working at the dining hall I deal with this directly and wearisomely.
Working at the dining hall the past two years has been a positive experience. I have gained valuable insight from meeting people who live a life very different from mine and seeing my own student body from a different perspective. I have also gained a sense of empowerment through my ability to exist on both sides; to look across the counter and have an understanding of the other. One of my co-workers who is also a student said, “I like when people that once intimidated me have to ask me to use the bathroom.” This is a special kind of power which fuels us as we go about our days as students, a power that can only be achieved through our position at the dining hall.
As I approach graduation I feel excited about my plans for the future. I get to leave the dining hall behind and move on to new places and skill sets. But, most of the people I currently work with will not. They will continue washing the tables and dishes of Muhlenberg students to come. I have the privilege to exist on both sides of the counter and the freedom to leave.
Friends often ask me what it’s like to work at the dining hall and I always encourage them to consider it for themselves, but very few actually do. We, as students, tend to stay in our comfortable “Muhlenbubble” and we crave being understood by those we surround ourselves with. It may be intimidating to join a workforce of people who cannot always understand you, but in order to learn, it’s essential to be open to understanding across cultures, languages and backgrounds. The most valuable part of this job has been hearing the stories of those I work with and finding common ground. By working at the dining hall as a student, I am dancing between the nuanced lines of power that exist in institutions like ours. When we let the in-betweens breathe, we empower ourselves to learn from each other and grow.