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Behind the Counter: Dynamics Between Student Employees and the Community

Putting on a uniform often changes the way that people perceive you. When I put on the bright red shirt and black baseball cap announcing to campus that I’m a student worker at the Dining Center (DC), I take on a different persona. Many others who have worked in food or customer service will understand me when I say that I have to put on my “happy face” for the job. No matter how I’m feeling, a cheerful demeanor has to take over as soon as I start my shift. But it’s not as ridiculous or excruciating as it sounds. Strangely enough, it often has a “fake it till you make it” effect – working at the DC, although tiring at times, is a welcome break from the academic and personal stressors I’m forced to leave at the door.

This effect is largely due to the incredible staff members at the DC that I have had the pleasure of working with for the past four years. Although the staff has changed slightly since I started as a freshman, I’ve gotten to know new people as they’ve joined the staff, and I have grown to love each one of them – from managers and cooks to servers and dish runners. Every time I come in for a shift, without fail, I am greeted by several staff members asking how I’m doing. In my experience, they consistently make an effort to get to know the students that both do and do not work at the DC. They have made me feel like a part of their family, and I’m so grateful to have worked alongside them during my time at Haverford.

My treatment from the staff alone does not capture my full experience as a student worker. An important part of my job is interacting with the students that come through the DC, ensuring that they have a pleasant dining experience. Part of that is welcoming incoming, hungry students with a bright smile and chipper attitude. Recently, I had a student remark that I was “the most happy and enthusiastic student worker” she had ever seen at the DC. I took it as a compliment, in hopes that my optimistic demeanor might be contagious for anyone who might be having a rough day.

For the most part, my interactions with my peers are pleasant. I appreciate just a simple exchange of greetings or even eye-contact and a nod. However, not all students are as considerate as the girl who spoke to me. Oftentimes, I will go completely unnoticed as students with headphones over their ears or eyes glued to their phones shuffle on by, not even responding to a simple hello. Now, I understand that everyone has days where they might be stressed or mentally preoccupied; not every student wants to have a conversation. But I do think that this practice is indicative of how we sometimes fail to treat each other with the same respect when power dynamics are at play. Had I not been a DC student worker, or if I had been a student employee in a different position, would I have been ignored in this way?

For many student jobs on campus, a student typically provides a service to their peers. However, there are certain on-campus jobs that foster a more disparate interaction than others. For example, I work as both a DC student worker and as a teaching assistant for the Biology 200 lab. There are several obvious differences between the two jobs, but one that I acutely experience is the way I’m treated by my peers. As a TA, I feel consistently acknowledged and appreciated for the work I’m doing. I’m consistently greeted, treated with respect, and thanked at the end of lab period as students leave. At the DC, on the other hand, it’s hit or miss.

While it’s never intentional, there are many ways that students fail to appreciate their peers that work in places like the DC. It’s usually an accumulation of little things, such as leaving trash and plates on the tables, complaining about the food in front of staff, or spilling food on the counter and not bothering to clean it up (or notify someone to help clean it). While these things may seem insignificant, they are all small ways in which we often fail to pay attention to whom our actions are affecting.

It’s all too easy to dehumanize someone when their sole purpose to you is to provide a singular service – especially when we’re homogenized with uniforms and hidden behind glass counters and metal shelves. Yes, the DC student workers and staff are there to prepare food, provide good customer service, and keep a clean dining hall. But these workers are people too, with humanity and lives of their own. Keep in mind that the same people who are wiping up the mess on your tables are the ones you go to class with every day.

So, I urge my peers, especially those that may have never held a menial job before, to pay attention the next time they walk into the DC. Maybe say hello to a staff member or student worker, take the time to notify someone if you spill some dressing on the floor, and be sure to stack your plates on the conveyor belt before you leave. These are all little things that each of us can do to ensure that mutual trust, concern, and respect is upheld, even in the context of the power dynamics that arise in student employment.