I could see him trying to find the right words, attempting to convey what he was thinking, what he had experienced. “Podemos hablar en Español,” I said, we can speak in Spanish. His face broke into a smile, and relief embraced his features. The words tasted like honey on my tongue as they rolled out into the world: Having recently moved to the United States myself, I understood too well the innate comfort of speaking one’s native language, and the hardship that results from being unable to do so. My conversation with the man sitting before me, however, had a motive that extended beyond trivial familiar details from home, like ropa de segunda (the Latin American equivalent to thrift stores). I was there to gain insight into his job, his livelihood, his life.
Upon arriving at Stanford, I found it perplexing and uncomfortable to leave my dishes for another person to wash. Do I make eye contact? Do I say thank you or smile and awkwardly shuffle away? I observed other students, attempting to understand what the etiquette was, but all that came of it was a deep sense of disgust. I longed to see gratitude, but perhaps this expectation was overly optimistic.
Meanwhile, headlines bombarded the Stanford community with issues regarding the University’s contract with Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 2007, affordable housing and accessible transportation: Students seemed to express continuous indignation in response to Stanford’s treatment of its service workers. While they are outspokenly concerned, their actions don’t seem to reflect the same sentiment. I found it disconcerting how little interest people seemed to have in the personal relationship between students and staff. I could not spend my four years here tiptoeing around these daily interactions, constantly uncomfortable, in an Arrillagan no man’s land. I needed to understand what it was like to work here, what the relationship is between students and dining hall staff, not, I resolved, from the students, not from the headlines, not from the administration, but from the voices of those who work at Stanford.
It was in these conversations that I discovered the commentary, the comprehension I was searching for, and, unexpectedly, the positivity. Led by my eagerness, the first of these conversations was organic, unencumbered by the burden of preconceived questions. The central point of inquiry of the ensuing interactions was reified as a result of this headlong charge: “What is one thing you want Stanford students to know about your job?” My goal became, not only to understand these relations myself but also to carry their voice to the student body as a whole.
The first answer I heard to this simple question sparked in me a warmth that, to this day, comes back to me at every meal. “Lo que hacemos, lo hacemos con todo nuestro corazón,” what we do, we do with all our hearts: It was a sentiment echoed by every person I spoke to. Their collective voice delineated the significance of appreciation for the meticulous effort, precision, intentionality and ultimately of the importance that their work has in their lives.
With one chef I spoke at length about his experience of moving to the United States as a young teenager, of watching his life slowly adapt to a foreign culture, of living away from the place, the people he calls home. He told me about seeing many international students go through the same struggles he underwent: “Sometimes they miss food from home. They come to me and ask me to make it — that’s why we put the blackboard up so that people can voice their opinion. We want to make students feel heard, feel at home, provide them with the best service, the best experience possible.”
Other members of the staff pointed to the “care and kindness with which we make their food,” highlighting the effort that it takes to make a meal and the reward gratitude offers.
“I cut every little thing by hand when I work in the stations,” said one of them. “Nothing is pre-made, and seeing people enjoy the product of my work is very satisfying.”
They also spoke about the desire to ensure diversity and creativity in the meal options.
“We have vegans, vegetarians, all kinds of people who eat here, you know. We want to be creative with what we offer,” said one.
“Come with an open mind and enjoy the food!” said another.
People also expressed to me the pecuniary importance of their work, and how it enabled them to earn a livelihood.
“I consider Stanford like my home,” said one employee. “I mean it is because of this place that I can survive, it is where I get the money for my rent, for my family. It is very important to me.” With regard to working conditions, they said “Yes, maybe we are a little understaffed and things can always be better. But benefits are good, transportation especially helps with the long trip from my house.”
I asked about the best experience they had with Stanford students, and most answers reiterated the main message they wanted to express: the importance of appreciation. The stories embodied moments that consisted of genuine gratitude.
“Working in the dining hall during the summer was great, when I cooked for the football team,” said one employee. “They [the students] would come from practice, they would be so tired, and so happy to have a good meal. They were grateful. Something small, they would be so thankful.”
He told me that their smiles — their appreciation — made his work meaningful.
Students’ appreciation, however, was not guaranteed. One young woman told me about a time when she was washing dishes. There were two dishpans, side-by-side, one full, one empty. A student placed a plate on the already precarious pile building in the full pan, and when it came crashing down looked briefly bewildered, and then walked away. She said she had asked the student to place it in the empty one and had merely received an offended look in response.
Answers to the question, “What is your worst experience with Stanford students?” were what I had been dreading. These were the stories that, as a member of the collective student body, haunted me, embarrassed me.
“I feel like there is no consideration on their part,” said one worker. “Especially when it comes to cleaning up after them.”
Are the good experiences compensation enough? Even if we are able to pat ourselves on the back, and call the aforementioned student ignorant and disrespectful, do we truly appreciate their work? What does this appreciation look like?
We can march, we can rally, we can advocate against the University’s allegedly poor treatment of its service workers, but ultimately those particular decisions lie with the administration (as we recently saw when Stanford withdrew its General Use Permit application). You and I? You and I can directly have an immediate impact through our daily interactions with the people that make our food and wash our dishes. Maybe it is not about the contracts or the greater bureaucracy, but about human life.
This is my question to you: When you walk into one of the many dining halls on Stanford’s campus, what goes through your mind? Do you think about the effort that goes into planning, preparing and serving your meal? Or do you think about your papers, projects and exams?
I am by no means exonerating myself, I too feel the pressure, the stress, the all-consuming effect of schoolwork. This series of conversations changed my life. My initial insecurity around my relationship with staff members has been replaced with certainty. Today, I look into their eyes as I put my plate down, say, “thank you so much” and leave, understanding what has gone into my meal. All I ask is that for one minute, when you make eye contact with the person who swipes your card, who washes your plate, that you mentally pause: truly, consciously acknowledge the effort that has gone into preparing tonight’s menu, the long commute most staff members have to embark on once you are comfortably back in the lounge of your dorm, the life of the person standing before you. Practice gratitude. Practice kindness. Practice humanity.
Contact Tara Hein at tarahein ‘at’ stanford.edu.