A quick swipe of your SpiderCard followed by the decision of what to eat. Do you have time for two hard eggs or should you just go for the hard-boiled ones today? You find friends, sit down, enjoy your meal and leave.
But in your daily dining experiences, do you ever pay close attention to the workers in the Heilman Dining Center? Even though students see and interact with them on a daily basis, what is it like to be a dining hall employee?
Each day, more than 100 full-time dining hall employees work eight stations, continually replenishing, cleaning and serving breakfast, lunch and dinner to University of Richmond’s students.
“I think most of our employees that come here are the ones that are looking for job security and see the University of Richmond as a prestigious name,” said Jerry Clemmer, director of residential dining. “It’s more than likely their parents did not come here.”
Nena Kuo, an employee since 2008, is one of these employees who radiates contagious positivity. Before starting at HDC, Kuo was raised in China and graduated culinary school there. After marrying and moving to Richmond, she first learned about the university’s job opening through her Sunday church group.
“Here they care about your time and your health, and it attracted me,” Kuo said. But it’s the students that have kept her here over the years.
“Everyone here, they call me momma,” Kuo said. She is comfortable with this, as she has two kids herself. Her son, Jesse, attends the VCU School of Medicine and also holds a part-time job in the restaurant business.
“He always says, 'You work too hard, Momma.' I disagree, but he’s still a good boy.” Kuo said.
She admitted to seeing her own children in some students. For instance, two years ago she drove an international student to a rental car dealership, just so the student could have transportation.
Other than Jesse, 20, Kuo has a daughter, Theresa, 36, who works in the hospitality industry.
But Kuo did not want to focus on her own children. Her responses continually returned to the Richmond students. “I want to tell the students: Don’t give yourself the pressure, calm down and give yourself the time. Don’t rush and don’t compare yourself to others,” Kuo said.
“If you follow your heart and do it honestly, you will look back on your life and be all right.”
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Kimberly Christian, 48, a morning employee, held a more realist perspective. Christian has worked at the dining hall for 20 years. As part of the morning shift, she works five days a week from 7:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Her brother, sister-in-law, nephew and two nieces also work in housekeeping on campus, although they finish work at 2:30 p.m.
“I least look forward to the cook-to-order pasta bar,” Christian said with a giggle, acknowledging the physical tolls it takes on her shoulders after serving dozens of students in seemingly endless lines.
But her favorite station, the made-to-order egg line, allows her to get into a rhythm and keeps things fresh. She recalled that the most eggs she ever made for one student was 11, which to this day she still finds hard to believe.
Talking about a different student, she said, “He doesn’t even know he makes my day, but he always says, ‘Thank you, sweetheart.’ Something like that, it just makes everything brighter."
But Christian was not all smiles. Sometimes she deals with students who come across as rude or unappreciative. “When somebody comes up and says, ‘What!’ I am so shocked,” Christian said. “I think it’s very rude, but maybe just because we could never say, ‘What!’ in my house.”
Nevertheless, Christian still looks forward to working each day, something she sees herself doing for at least 10 more years.
“It’s like I’m the life of the party,” Christian said. “When I’m not here, it’s just more hectic.”
Drucilla Marsh, 55, just completed her first year at HDC this past January. After an unexpected eight-month lay off from her previous job, she is very thankful for the past year here.
“I did not know the value of a job until I didn’t have it,” Marsh said.
While working at Richmond, Marsh has enrolled in a Grammar Refresher course offered online, one of the various included courses available to HDC employees.
“I like to write, it’s kind of what I do,” Marsh said, confidently. She plans to take even more courses in the future to eventually earn a Bachelor’s degree.
Other benefits of being a university employee include health insurance and 12 paid holidays.
Even though she’s a rookie, Marsh, like Kuo, possesses a motherly trait, having also raised two sons, Sean and Rakim.
“As a parent you want what’s best for your children. So when you see other students, you can’t help but think about their parents and are reminded to want the best for them, too,” Marsh said.
Josh Vanscyoc, 21, is even newer to the team since he only joined this past October. Vanscyoc was welcomed from the beginning by friendly coworkers who placed him under their wings.
“They taught me everything I needed to know, and quite fast actually,” Vanscyoc said.
Like Marsh, Vanscyoc plans to take courses offered to employees in the near future but is still undecided on which ones he would pursue.
Unlike the Kuo, Christian and Marsh, Vanscyoc does a lot of behind-the-scenes work that goes unnoticed. A typical day for him consists of taking out the trash multiple times, refilling dishes and bowls on the main floor and taking trays and dishes off the conductor to then place in the dishwasher.
In his mind, he believes it’s best to just do his job, he said. “I don’t try to intervene in students' lives,” Vanscyoc said. “I know they have a lot on their plates -- pun intended.”
Even though the dining hall employees come from a variety of backgrounds and lifestyles, spending time with any of them displays how passionate they are about their positions, their coworkers and perhaps most importantly to them, the students here at Richmond.
Clemmer, who is closing in on his 10th year at the HDC, agrees. “To us, this dining hall is where you should take refuge from the professors and all the stresses of college,” Clemmer said. “But for the workers, I can guarantee you their favorite part of the job is when they have positive interactions with students.”
Contact reporter Matt McKenna at email@example.com.
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