The day Thedosia Lucas got into Yale changed her life.

“Yale is the hardest place to get into,” she said. “If you can get into Yale, you’re good.”

Lucas, a bubbly 30-year-old who goes by T.T. to her co-workers, can name the day — September 9, 2005 — she started her job as an employee of Yale University Dining Services. Since then, she has worked in several college dining halls and Commons, and now works at Davenport swiping ID cards, chopping veggies, washing dishes and making sure hungry Elis never run out of beef brisket. While the job has its downsides — rude students sometimes ignore her hellos, and she comes home late to laundry and housecleaning — Lucas says working at Yale has helped turn her life around.

Into the streets

When Lucas was in high school, she was a high honors student who expected to go to college. But when she got pregnant a few months shy of 18, everything changed. She decided to keep the baby, she said, and was forced to leave the group home in Waterford where she had been placed in eighth grade.

Lucas returned home to New Haven to live with her mother and over the next decade had two more children by two different men. To support her family, she worked at fast-food restaurants like Burger King and Boston Market. When she wasn’t working, Lucas said, she spent a lot of time partying, and became involved in New Haven’s drug culture.

“I was really into the streets, doing stuff I had no business doing,” she said.

At 26, Lucas was arrested and sentenced to two years in prison. Being away from her children “drove me crazy,” she said, and convinced her that she needed to change the habits that had landed her in jail. When she was released two years after her arrest, Lucas said, she was determined to find a job and stay clean so she could be around her children as they grew up.

But Lucas quickly found that her criminal record made people reluctant to hire her, and for four months after her release, she spent every day going out in search of employment, only to receive rejection after rejection.

“They say society is going to give you a second chance, and it does,” she said. “But they really do discriminate.”

Finally, a cousin who works at Yale helped her get a job at the University. Lucas started as a “casual” — an hourly worker the dining hall managers call in based on demand — and now has a regular 25-hour-a-week position, with the possibility for more hours when someone else is out.

Blanche Temple, director of Human Resources for YUDS, said most dining hall employees come in through the “casual pipeline.” While there are certain baseline requirements for dining hall employees— including a high-school education or GED and a year of experience in food service — “that smile,” Temple said, “is the biggest thing.” A criminal record does not exclude a candidate from consideration, she said, as long as the other conditions are met.

A job for a ‘people person’

A self-described “people person,” Lucas said interacting with students — or “my kids,” as she calls them — is one of the best parts of her job. Even when her actual children are misbehaving or she fights with one of their fathers, Lucas said, she tries to make sure her outside problems never interfere with her ability to do her job.

For the most part, Lucas said, students are polite and even friendly, responding to her greetings when she swipes their ID cards and cleaning up after themselves if they spill on the food line. On a good day, she said, work feels like a “sanctuary,” where she can come to get a break from her own children and take care of someone else’s for a while.

At the same time, Lucas said, she has noticed “a little bit of racialness” at Yale. Most students open up to her “friendly personality,” she said, but occasionally someone will completely ignore her attempts at conversation.

“Some of them, honestly, are just stuck up,” she said. “Especially when I’m at the desk, I’ll get a couple of people who I’ll say ‘Hi, how are you?’ and they just look at me.”

At Spring Fling last year, Lucas said, she was waiting in line with her aunt to be let onto Old Campus when a Yale student came up to them and told them to leave, saying, “You work for me. You’re under me. You get back.”

Still, in the dining hall itself, Lucas said, she has never felt particularly victimized for her race, and the easygoing students far outweigh the standoffish ones.

Jim Moule, who has managed the Davenport Dining Hall for the last 10 years, said that while Lucas seems to have a good relationship with students — or, as he calls them, “customers” — there is generally less interaction now between dining hall employees and students because the renovations that were completed in 2005 changed the layout of Davenport’s serving area. Most food preparation and dish washing now takes place in the basement, he said, creating an “impersonal” atmosphere that makes all but the most limited interactions between Yalies and employees difficult.

A group of Davenport students eating in the dining hall said they think most of the employees are friendly and competent, but few of them knew Lucas’ name and only a handful were able to identify her. Laura Greer ’07 said that while she thinks Lucas is “really, really sweet and friendly,” she said she knows all the dining hall workers on only a superficial level.

Changing a Life

As a “generic rounds” employee, Lucas fills in when someone is sick or takes a day off, so her duties change day-to-day, which she said keeps things interesting. Moule said most employees of Yale Dining Services are cooks or work in one of three categories: as a desk attendant swiping ID cards, a pantry worker preparing food for cooking or a general services attendant carting trays and keeping supplies well-stocked. Lucas does all three.

Of all the possible jobs she could be assigned, Lucas said, her favorite is working the dish room — as long as she’s not washing pots. Laughing at the memory, Lucas described how the one time she washed pots, she could not quite reach the sink and ended up soaking wet, much to the amusement of the other workers on dish duty.

Wanda Underwood, Lucas’ former foster sister and a display cook in the dining hall, said that while Lucas has her bad days like everyone else, she is “very proud” of the way her sister has taken control of her life. She was surprised when Lucas unexpectedly ended up working with her, but Underwood said having her sister for company “makes time go fast.”

Although her co-workers may be willing to have a little fun at her expense, Lucas said her new friends from work — who like to tease her for the “salad creations” she eats every day, made with lettuce, tomato, egg and cheese and either Ranch or Lite Italian dressing — have played a key part in helping her stay off the streets.

Lucas said she has become close to several of her colleagues outside the workplace, and she compared the Davenport Dining Hall to a family. On her 30th birthday, a group of co-workers surprised Lucas at her house and took her out dancing, which she said was “something little but that really meant a lot.” When an employee is out sick, Lucas said, everyone pitches in to buy them a get-well card, and two of her colleagues sometimes bring in Pokemon cards for Lucas to bring home to her children.

And while she loves her job, Lucas said, her first priority is always her children. She worries a lot that they will become “black statistics,” she said, and wants to make sure they know they can make a living without being sucked into the streets.

“In order for me to show that to them, I really have to do that myself,” she said. “I’m changing my life so much.”