Where did your shower fixer guy go to college? How long has the leaf blower lady worked here? Who even cleans your dishes in the dining hall behind that futuristic, revolving shelf contraption? What are their names?
We are surrounded by university employees who shape our environment every day – yet we hardly ever engage with them.
As I observed the student-staff relationship around campus, it occurred to me that perhaps there is a reason for this divide. We don’t view them as peers, people with lives as rich and complex as our own. We see them hard at work around the campus and view them as just that – workers – as we’re too caught up in our own lives and perhaps a bit too shy to take a minute to understand and appreciate who they are as individuals.
I am certainly not impervious to this human error and decided to see what would happen if I took a step toward bridging the divide. I started by speaking with a dining hall employee, Christina Sheridan, one of the biggest supporters of my work at The Miami Hurricane. I can always rely on her to read my columns, greet me warmly at the dining hall door and make sure my experience is safe and enjoyable.
Sheridan, who supports four kids on her own, said, “The hardest part is working here from 4 p.m. to 2:30 in the morning and then getting up early to take the kids to school.”
That sentiment certainly made me appreciate late-night dining on a whole new level.
“I clean tables, wash dishes, serve food, swipe cards,” Sheridan said. “I mostly see the same students every day. They often look happy. Sometimes they look very focused. I’ll ask how they are doing, and they don’t respond, but I don’t mind. I love this job; it’s the only job I’ve ever had and only one I’ve ever wanted.”
Upon leaving, I encountered another employee in the dining hall, Ramonta Thompson. As she saw me conducting an interview, she told me that she too was a journalist. She majored in sports journalism at Florida Memorial University.
“After graduating, I wrote for the Sun Sentinel and the Miami Herald,” Thompson said. “I now work here and own a restaurant down south called Uber Wings. I’m thinking of opening another restaurant for a different kind of cuisine.”
I was stunned that someone I see every day had accomplished all these feats unbeknownst to me. But I never knew because I never asked.
She then told me a little about her background.
“I grew up in Nigeria and came to the states for college,” Thompson said. “I now have three kids, ages 15, 6 and a 6-month-old baby. To be honest, I play with my kids so much at home, I just make the students here my kids. You have to be a people person to do this job.”
In the dining hall, Thompson swipes Cane Cards, manages food and supervises employees.
“For the most part, it’s a lot of friendly kids,” she said. “Some are not so friendly. I’d say it’s 65 percent friendly, 35 percent not so friendly. They’re stressed out with college.”
I was amazed that she was juggling a baby, two other kids, owning a restaurant and working at UM. Despite the inherent stressors of those obligations and not always being acknowledged by the students, she still contributed to the upbeat ambiance of the dining hall.
When she asked if I was studying journalism, I told her I was actually studying musical theater, though I loved journalism, too.
“Do both,” Thompson said. “I was a journalist and also danced with Alvin Ailey.”
She casually tossed it off, as if Alvin Ailey isn’t one of the most prestigious dance troupes in the country.
I then spoke with Angel Rey, a maintenance mechanic.
“I come here early in the morning, check all the equipment, make sure all the kids have hot water,” Rey said. “I’ve been here at UM for 30 years. Believe me, 30 years goes by really quick. When you find what you want to do, do it now.”
When I asked what he thought of the student body, he didn’t hold back.
“This is a nice place to work,” Rey said. “I like the environment and the kids. We seem to get along. Every so often you find those one or two that think, ‘Who do you think you are? I’m rich.’ But two in 100 doesn’t spoil my day.”
Rey said he plans on retiring in two years and traveling.
“I’m going to take it easy and enjoy life,” he said. “I’ve been working since I was 12 years old; I need to make up for lost time. I’m going to go to Hawaii, Europe and then back to my native country, Colombia.”
The people around you have rich, colorful lives. Perhaps, in talking to an employee around the school, you may find a new role model or receive some valuable life advice. By simply saying hello, you may be opening yourself up to understanding people from different walks of life. Why not give yourself an education really worth your $60,000?
Dana Munro is a sophomore majoring in musical theater. Glass Half Full runs every Tuesday.
Featured photo is a file photo of The Miami Hurricane.