Handle With Care: Is Our Dining Center Culture Healthy?

Last time you were here we were just getting introduced, and I know that when you first meet someone it can be hard to remember all the important information they give, so let’s recap. I wrote mainly about perspective and how the mental states we take into into every situation are vital to our experience of that situation. This week, I want to talk about my take on the past six weeks at Haverford. As a transfer student, my perspective on Haverford is different from the norm so I acknowledge that if I have biases in this regard they come from the fact that my only comparison to my current experience is the experience I had at my old school. However, two is better than one, and to be fair, I have experienced more colleges than the majority of students at Haverford.

Transferring has been testing experience for a few reasons. The three flights of stairs I have to walk up and down several times a day in my new dorm are not great, but the transition I have been struggling most with is adjusting to the Haverford eating mentality. The Dining Center culture is not an easy one to slide into. I know, I know, this is only in comparison to my last college, but I have been thinking about the way other students at Haverford feel about our dining center and its potential quirks.

Let me explain what I mean by Haverford’s Dining Center culture. First of all, students I spoke to about this matter agree that we do almost nothing alone at Haverford. We don’t go to parties without a large enough group of friends, we don’t like to show up to club activities alone, and as an upperclassman it can be inconvenient to not have a set friend group as most housing options are small suites. I asked students whether or not they went to dinner alone, and how they feel when they do. Since customs week it has been instilled in me that most Haverford students find it acceptable to go to breakfast or lunch alone, mainly because our daily schedules do not always match up with our friends’ schedules. However, dinner at Haverford is a group activity. Many students I talked to have chosen the take-out option for dinner when they had no one to sit with, too uncomfortable with the idea of sitting alone at a table large enough to fit fifteen people (and in my opinion, rightfully so).

One student I spoke to shared my feeling that the atmosphere in the Dining Center is always better when there are less people in it. This is due various reasons such as the structure of the service stations. During rush hour, the space designed for getting food is incredibly disorganized, and students walk back and forth throughout the hallway-like area, creating multiple flows of traffic. Secondly, the DC can reach a high noise level easily during its peak hours, so much so that it can be hard to hear the person sitting next to you. Haverford students and I also spoke about how the tables are arranged to seat such large groups. All of these qualities are simply less stressful with 50 people around you, as opposed to 250. Another student said they sometimes feel like they are doing something wrong by eating alone when everyone around them is eating with large groups of friends. At Haverford, students arrive to dinner (more than any other meal) with multiple friends. Feeling self-conscious when walking into that environment alone is not completely in our heads.

Part of what makes dinner at Haverford such a group activity is that so much of the school has just finished practicing with their varsity or club sports team, so they naturally arrive to dinner together. For a small school, Haverford has an unusually large number of sports teams (23 varsity teams and 8 club teams). At dinner, a school of roughly 1200 students begins to feel much larger simply because of the number of athletes piling in, wearing matching clothing and sitting around three tables pushed together. The General Manager of the Dining Services Joe Binotto says “I’ve noticed that Haverford students enjoy all sitting at one very large table, I think some students may also like having small tables to have a more intimate setting, and a different level of engagement with their peers.” I couldn’t agree more.

I assume everyone is somewhat interested in the story I mentioned earlier with my friends. Here’s a snapshot. I just so happened to drive four and a half hours the other weekend and stumbled upon my previous college. It was not as grand as a return as I had hoped for, but three things did happen. First, my friends got caught with quite a bit paraphernalia not allowed by campus rules. Second, I talked to a student I had never met before, a freshman presumably. Third, I thought about this column. There was wide selection of cigarettes butts on the floor of the gazebo where we sat. There is a much larger smoking population at Simon’s Rock, my previous college, than at Haverford, and everyone leaves their butts around the “designated smoking areas” destructively. It’s not common that I would look down and recognize a specific cigarette being put out, but I do. I noticed it because it reminded me of the night before, when my friends got caught. They smoked a lot of cigarettes, and we all freaked out a little outside their dorm after the residence directors knocked on their doors. After a minute, a few more friends came outside to tell us about what we, me and my “host” on campus, narrowly evaded. My old school is all so beautiful in its chaos and defacement, though. It’s a school smaller than Haverford and my visit reminded me of how I had interacted with others there.

In the beginning of this piece I mentioned that when I visited my previous college I spoke to a student I had never met. My friends and I were eating at our equivalent of Lunt Cafe and this stranger sat down at our table. We exchanged a few pleasantries and immediately involved her in our conversation. Ultimately, I have found that very few Haverford students engage in this kind of activity. The students I spoke to when writing this piece agreed that it would be unusual for someone they had never met to sit with them at a meal at Haverford, and it would be even more unlikely, they said, for them to grab a seat at a table of students they had never met. Just think about what this means for new students, students who are not a part of a customs team and without a hall to group message, or students who are not on a sports team. There is a “phantom 500” at Haverford for a reason: our most central place on campus is a space for the gregarious, the involved, and the popular.

I hope that after fall break I have the courage to be more like the stranger I met at Simon’s Rock. I hope that we all feel a little more comfortable engaging with people at school that we might not know at, regardless of how many people we show up to the DC with.

Handle With Care is a bi-monthly column about mental health at Haverford. If you would like to respond to this column or have an idea for what we should cover next, please contact columnist Taylor Levine ’18.

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2 Responses

  1. ben says:

    Thank you for writing this, Taylor.

  2. hcpa says:

    Nice comparison of the little cultural contrasts than can become big experiential differences at these small colleges. I always thought there should be a designated “party of one” table for folks eating by themselves to meet each other in the DC

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