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Notes on graduate dining

This past week, a friend and I headed to Lakeside for dinner. But they turned us away because we were grad students. Shame-faced like Giotto’s Eve and Adam, we left paradise in search of food in the wilderness. Luckily, Ricker down the road greeted us with smiling faces, sliced avocado, berries and no nuts.
But this experience got us thinking.
R&DE’s recent solution of opening up Ricker to support more options for grad students seems at first nice, but it is, in fact, insufficient. This is because it effectively closes a more versatile dining hall (Lakeside, not peanut free) to graduate students and opens up no-nuts Ricker instead. But the logic in the reordering of dining options is important: R&DE closes one, opens another and then pitches it as “more” options. It doesn’t add up. Last year, I was able to eat at Wilbur and Stern – these were conspicuously absent from the recent R&DE announcement. So maybe we’ve actually lost two in the end, but we’d have to verify.
More than the seemingly false advertisement of more options, designating grad-friendly dining halls from undergrad-only ones is pretty divisive – structurally and culturally. The logic behind this move is to keep the integrity of dorm programming intact. But this argument doesn’t seem to hold water.
First, undergrad-only dorms are open to all undergrads, even to those undergrads not living inside the hosting dorm of the dining hall. So, these “foreign” undergrads from the row and elsewhere have the potential to be as disruptive to dorm programming / community as us grad students do. Second, row houses seem to have great cohesive communities even as they invite outside students, including grads, to become regular dining associates. Third, the case gets even trickier when we start to classify all the flavors of undergrad: What do we do with last year’s undergrad who’s this year’s fifth-year coterm? Should they be turned out because they’re now grad students, even though they most probably have friends who are still at Stanford happily munching on the baked fries? Wouldn’t that be pretty disruptive to community? And if the fifth-year coterm grad student were to get access, what do we do, then, with other alumni grad students? But if they get access, too, then that’d mean there would still be a very large and diverse and brilliant and cute group of students still excluded – everyone who isn’t or wasn’t a Stanford undergraduate.
See how this inevitably (if unintentionally) leads one to ask: Who’s really a Stanford student? This question is the animating force behind this whole conversation, which is no less about the very boundaries we set to definitions of community on this campus. This conversation is important and should be continuous, but it shouldn’t be instigated by differences in dinners (or other inequitable treatment).
Maybe there’s a different story behind the move to turn away grad students. Maybe grad student presence in undergraduate dorm dining halls disrupts more generally undergraduates’ sense of community. It’s not about a specific dorm’s programming, per se, but about the bigger undergrad experience.
I can definitely see that – after all, there does seem to be segmentation in the wider Stanford “community,” not least between academic careers but perhaps also along other lines, too. #sadface
But I have felt and learned that this kind of segmentation — at least when it’s not self-congregation – is not something we should look to foster. Quite to the contrary: The idea of crossing lines, speaking with others from different fields, learning to recognize and appreciate the experiences of people who are not entirely like you – that’s actually the “bread and butter” of a Stanford education. Grad students and undergraduates have a lot to learn from each other, and what better way to do that than informally over a delicious and nutritious R&DE meal? Section, after all, can be tedious for all of us.
Some would say: Well, the grad-friendly dining halls are not grad-only dining halls. That romantic picture you’ve painted of spontaneous interaction and face-to-face time can still be had!
Well, not necessarily. That is at least because (1) structuring a two-tiered system will accentuate self-selection instead of cross-pollination and, in doing so, affirm divisive Stanford cultural tropes and specters like “creepy grad students” and “entitled undergrads.” This structure, to be sure, works both imaginatively and physically: It works imaginatively in that the presence of such a division affirms these stereotypes and so naturalizes and conveniently justifies the need for the divisions in the first place, and physically in that the presence of such a division will tend to distribute most undergrads into their proper spaces and grads into theirs. This then means an absence of a mutual place for mutual recognition to correct these caricatures. The untenability of the castle in the sky from above is also because (2) R&DE’s selective high-performance dining service. It jointly works as an incentive for undergrads to stay in undergrad-only dining halls and as a signal to grads that they are somehow not valuable enough to benefit from better food. Pearls to swine!
But the community and programming argument seems to be a false pretense. The bottom line is more likely the money: Athletics had the extra cash to address their students’ needs; non-athlete undergrads felt nonetheless slighted – understandably, they worked hard to get accepted and being turned away at dinnertime feels disorienting and belittling. Is this Stanford? Really? So, VPUE generously underwrote the bill to expand the nicer meals to all undergrads. In a logic that I can understand myself, VPUE and Athletics can’t be reasonably expected to foot the bill for the legions of grad students to have nicer meals. The logical next step (after unbarring all the doors to dining halls) would be for VPGE (or all grad schools collectively) to throw in some more cash to expand the nicer dining opportunities for graduate students.
The net result would be a university that intentionally structures and fosters a full sense of community built on diversity and fueled by the nation’s best collegiate chefs producing the best meals.
To be sure, this is about what we all can bring to the table. Let’s live up to our culture of cross- and interdisciplinary innovation and change-making and excellence by deliberately structuring opportunities for brilliant graduate students and brilliant undergraduates to spend regular or spontaneous quality time together over good food.
The community and learning and student culture that would likely result are precisely the very opportunity that R&DE and ResEd were charged to give a home to, not turn away.
– Daniel Scott Smith ’13, Ph.D. at the GSE & Graduate Fellow at EAST House

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