Michelle Fogarty ’16 and Keyanna Jackson ’16 met for dinner in the Branford dining hall this past Monday, a usual gathering spot for the two Branford seniors.
As they entered the hall, they were greeted by Michelle Gary — known as “Miss Michelle” to most Branford students. The three have been friends since Fogarty and Jackson’s freshman year, talking at meals and by the front desk. They started chatting as usual, updating one another about their weekends.
“How did your decorating go?” Fogarty asked Gary, knowing that she had been planning to deck out her home for Christmas over the weekend.
“Come over!” Gary exclaimed, inviting Fogarty, Jackson and a few other Branford friends to her home for dinner on Saturday night.
Such hospitality is nothing strange coming from Gary, who invited a group of seniors to her home last December in order to enjoy a home-cooked meal, a movie and a visit to the holiday light spectacle at Lighthouse Point Park. Hired at Yale in 2000 as a custodian, she has now worked in the Branford dining hall for more than 10 years. Gary said she sees all Branford students like her own children.
“Talking to her, getting to know her — it’s been great,” Fogarty said.
Gary goes above and beyond to make her students in Branford feel at home. But she’s not the only dining hall staff member who does more than her job description requires.
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Across Library Walk, in the Jonathan Edwards dining hall, another staff member, Lakeshia Sullins, also exceeds expectations.
Last year, Jonathan Edwards Dining Services Manager Rashmi Nath noticed Sullins interacting with a student during Sullins’ lunch break. The student had come to lunch a few minutes after 1:30 p.m. — when lunch service ends — and was standing near the grill looking around for food. The grill had already closed, and there was no one at the station.
Sullins noticed the student and approached to help. They started talking, and the student explained that he’d gotten out of class late. He was at the grill in search of halal meat due to his dietary restrictions. Sullins offered to make the student a grilled chicken sandwich or an all-beef burger — even though, as a pantry worker and desk attendant, it is beyond her job description to help with any cooking.
When Nath saw how responsive Sullins was to the student’s needs, she decided to nominate Sullins for the Black Linen Award.
Established seven years ago, the Black Linen Award is the highest honor in Yale Dining, University spokesman Tom Conroy explained. Throughout the year, managers send in nominations for employees who have gone above and beyond in serving students, he said, adding that winners are announced in the beginning of the school year at an annual meeting in front of the entire department.
Director of Residential Dining Operations Robert Sullivan said Yale Dining seeks to treat all of its employees equally, and thus does not award money as part of the Black Linen prize.
The employees want to hear when they are doing a good job, Nath said, and all it takes is a simple “thank you.” Still, she said she is always on the lookout for moments when her employees do something especially hospitable.
Sullins, who won the Black Linen award after Nath’s nomination, said while awards of recognition are nice, they are not her primary incentive to do good work. She does it because she wants to, because she cares about the students.
“If these kids weren’t here, there wouldn’t be us. We don’t do it for recognition. We don’t need a monetary award,” Sullins said. “We treat the students the way we would want our own kids to be taken care of.”
Gary, too, sees the job as its own reward. “I love the kids, I love to greet them and talk to them,” she said. “If I’m under the weather, [they] all put a smile on my face.”
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Beyond efforts made by Yale’s administration, appreciation for the University’s facilities workers has sprouted organically from students as well. Whether through simple “thank you”s when swiping into dining halls or larger initiatives led by residential college councils, undergraduates have developed relationships with staff outside of an employee-student context.
Similar to “Overheard at Yale” — a group dedicated to conversations and topics heard at Yale — the Facebook group “The Yale that You Don’t Know” serves as a forum where students can express their appreciation and support for Yale’s staff, whether they be dining hall workers or mental health counselors. Started this year by Xinyu Guan ’18 and Simiao Li ’18, the open forum not only allows students to share their personal experiences regarding Yale’s facilities, but also invites members of Yale’s staff to see these posts as well.
“Frank in Pierson Dining Hall is a blessing,” Darby Mowell ’18 posted in the group. “He asks me everyday how I am, and he genuinely cares about the answer. Frank and people like him are a big part of what makes Pierson — and Yale at large — really great.”
Guan said she drew inspiration for the group from “Humans at Yale,” which is modeled after the popular blog “Humans of New York.” “Humans at Yale” did not have any posts about Yale’s staff, she noted, although they are a community of people heavily invested in making sure Yale runs smoothly. When she talked to dining hall staff members, many said even a small “thank you” goes a long way, she explained.
“I have the general feeling that facilities workers are unseen on campus, which should not be the case,” Li said. “We have so many groups on Facebook about students and professors, but there really is nothing on social networks that focuses on our facilities staff.”
Li said some of the most meaningful interactions she has had with employees occurred through the Facebook group. She explained, for example, that she takes the liberty of sharing personal messages with staff, because when students post in the group, workers often do not see the messages. It’s not a completely efficient method because not everyone can be tracked down, but the messages remain meaningful. Li said when she reached out to one dining hall worker who happened to be sick at the time, the post made a difference.
“When we first started this group, we just had a few staff in mind that we really wanted to thank,” Guan explained. “There are a lot of things we could do to make people’s lives easier, and just because they’re paid to work here doesn’t mean we can’t clean up after ourselves and show our appreciation from time to time.”
Recognition has not been limited only to facilities staff and dining hall workers. Eliza Scruton ’17 wrote a post in the group sharing her experience with Yale Health. She said after calling multiple times for a prescription and being redirected from person to person, she was referred to a representative from Member Services named Sharon, who listened patiently to her request.
Scruton noted that employees who work for customer service often tend to take more blame than is due, adding that many deserve greater appreciation for their jobs. She recalled that the day after their initial conversation, Sharon called again to make sure everything had proceeded without a problem. Scruton said that she would be shocked if it were actually in Sharon’s job description to individually follow up with every person that she had helped.
“We do have to recognize that these are people doing things that are really important in making our lives better,” Scruton said. “There’s sometimes a mentality that you don’t have to thank someone who’s getting paid and just doing their job, and I think it’s a poisonous mentality that treats people’s lives as being exchangeable for money.”
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Despite the efforts of groups like “The Yale that You Don’t Know,” the relationship between students and employees is far from perfect. In November, Bernard Stanford ’17 posted in “Overheard at Yale” that one student had thrown away a quart of spoiled milk; when a Yale maintenance worker picked up the trash bag, it burst open after hitting the ground. “Don’t treat Yale workers like garbage,” the post admonished.
Indeed, many of Yale’s facilities workers have expressed their frustration with students dumping rotten food or liquids in trash cans rather than, for instance, bringing such waste directly to a dumpster. A facilities worker who wished to remain anonymous said when one student was leaving his dirty laundry in the bathroom, it hindered her from doing her job and also inconvenienced other students trying to use the same space.
“Sometimes the students are very rude,” she said.
The facilities staff are not the only employees who sometimes experience a lack of consideration from students. Dining hall workers have also dealt with some less-than-pleasant Yalies over the years.
“The dining hall staff are often overlooked, and at the end of the day, all Yale students need food,” Ezra Stiles College Council President Adam Zucker ’17 said. “[Employees] work so hard on weekends, holidays, over break [to keep] the dining hall clean, and a lot of people take it for granted. I’m not saying that they do it on purpose, but you don’t really see behind the scenes all of the things that need to be done.”
“Some students you speak to, and they don’t speak back — they just keep on going,” noted James Moore, a general assistant at the Branford dining hall.
For the most part, though, students are polite and considerate of dining hall staff and custodians, said Tamara Deberry, another custodian in Branford. She said that she tries to start conversations with students as she cleans, such as during Harvard-Yale Weekend, when she talked to a student for a long time about Thanksgiving plans and the chaos of The Game. Similarly, grounds maintenance gardener Joanne Scranton said when she is outside working on the sidewalk or in a college courtyard, people who see her often smile and thank her.
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While verbal expressions may be most common, appreciation can take other forms. This past week, the Ezra Stiles College Council held a gift event outside of the Stiles dining hall, soliciting monetary donations from students to distribute among the dining hall workers. While Zucker said he does not know when the event first started, he recalled that it was also held when he was only a freshman. Zucker said that last year, the council collected $662 for the dining hall staff.
Students also try to help staff out in little ways with other tokens of appreciation. Deberry said that most students are tidy in the bathroom, making it easier for her to do the more detailed cleaning and sanitizing she needs to do. For instance, in one bathroom that was getting sloppy, other students left a note to their peers asking them to take their toiletries out of the shower and to keep the area as clean as possible.
“When I see things like that, it makes me feel more appreciated,” Deberry said.
Jonathan Edwards dining staff member Labonita Monk mentioned the dining hall’s suggestion box, designed for students to drop in written comments about their dining experience — positive or negative. She emphasized that the comments help the dining hall workers better meet student needs.
“If we can oblige, we try to,” she said.
In addition, Sullivan explained that Yale Dining has its own app which students can use not only to check which dining halls are more crowded or what is on the menu for the day, but also to give feedback. Students can use the feedback feature to suggest ways to improve the dining experience, but also to express appreciation towards the staff.
Gary said that using the app or sending an email to compliment dining hall staff is a significant way in which students can show their appreciation because those comments go to the managers and directors.
“The entire senior staff will get the feedback from the students on the app. Then we pass it on to the managers who pass it on to the employees,” Sullivan confirmed.
In addition, the residential college councils encourage students to sign large banners for the dining hall staff at the end of the year.
“I know that several times following our weather-related emergencies of snow storms and hurricanes, students — usually led by the college councils — have made posters,” Director of Residential Dining Cathy Van Dyke SOM ’86 noted.
“We should do better,” said Katherine Whiting ’17, a member of the Branford College Council. She explained that while the BCC has taken steps to recognize the dining hall workers, she thinks they have neglected the other facilities workers. “I don’t think we have ever done anything for housekeeping staff,” she said.
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Van Dyke said Yale’s dining program is unique among university food services because each dining hall belongs to the college community in which it is set. Though managers may move from dining hall to dining hall more frequently, Yale Dining tries to keep the pantry staff as consistent as possible from year to year.
“One of the things our dining teams — from the desk attendants to the culinary teams to the front-line managers — love most about working in Yale Dining is their close connection to the students,” Van Dyke said.
The facilities team also tries to foster relationships between staff and students by assigning each custodian an entryway to cover, which gives them a chance to pass the same students in a given entryway throughout the year.
Fogarty suggested that she feels less of a connection with facilities staff than with dining hall staff. She said that it is easy to stop and chat with the desk attendant in a dining hall or the cooks behind the counter, but that she finds it more difficult to talk with custodians or grounds workers.
“You don’t really want to interrupt their work,” Fogarty said, explaining that she feels bad disturbing the custodians when they are vacuuming or cleaning out the showers. “I try to stay out of their way,” she added.
Branford dining hall worker Matthew Simmons said he thinks some students feel intimidated by the pantry staff when they are all joking, talking and playing music as they work.
“Any student can just chip into the conversation,” he said. “We are always looking to make a connection with students.”
Not all staff members reach out to students, Moore said, suggesting that respect between staff and students needs to go both ways. “It’s basically 50/50. I think some of the employees need to interact more, too. They need to be more friendly with the students. Both parties have to make an effort,” he said.
Sullivan said that while Yale students are generally very appreciative of the dining staff, he thinks the relationship between students and staff could be improved if Yale Dining did a better job of telling workers’ stories. If students had a better idea of where their food comes from, he said, they would have a greater appreciation for everything that the staff does to make their dining experience possible.
Simmons also suggested that increasing communication between staff and students in the dining hall would help students better understand and appreciate how the dining hall works. Specifically, he explained that students sometimes get upset when the dining hall runs out of certain food items, but said that if they talked to the staff more, they would learn about how the dining hall tries to eliminate waste and keep options as diverse as possible. What’s more, he said, if the students talked with the staff about what sorts of foods they want to see in the dining hall, they might have a better chance at influencing the choices of food that are served.
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Facilities and dining jobs are difficult. To keep Yale running each day, staff members often start early in the morning to prepare breakfast or clean rooms when facilities are empty, and stay late to serve dinner. The grounds maintenance and custodian teams must prepare before the school year starts for the arrival of Yale students, remain on campus during winter break to detail rooms and make major fixes, and often work after the school year ends to dispose of the junk students leave behind. Ice gets cleared away, leaves are raked, red solo cups disappear and the dining halls are decked magically overnight.
But Master Gardener Dawn Landino, who has been working at Yale for 30 years, said that even when the job gets tough, she’s happy to do it for Yale students.
“[Students] are here to get an education, and we are here to work with [them],” she said.
For all that happens behind the scenes to keep Yale running, it only takes a few simple gestures to show appreciation.
For Fogarty, it’s easy. “Say hi and say thank you and say how are you doing?” she suggested. “Take an interest in other people.”