A View from the Other Side of the Dining Hall

Rachel Rees Middleton 27 November 2016

Maria’s day is, like that of many university students, filled with a constantly shifting mix of deadlines, social life, and work. There is, however, one constant in her day to day: the emotional frustration she feels in the college dining hall. Not because of the portion sizes or her unfulfilled aspirations of becoming a BNOC. Maria has not matriculated at any college and her contact with our student body occurs mainly during lunch and dinner, where she works serving food in hall. Perhaps it would be nice if we occasionally looked beyond her working clothes and saw her as a fellow university student, chasing objectives, and overcoming obstacles like many of us.

We’re busy. We’re stressed. We have no time for pleasantries sometimes. But, as Maria observed, acknowledging the value of someone’s work with a “please” and “thank you” is all we need to do to make her feel recognised and respected as a human being. So why do so many of the students she serves fail to carry out this simple act of recognition?

This may be due to a lack of empathy, which cannot be taught in a supervision or lecture hall. I was unaware that dining staff often have to learn the individual allergies of the students they serve by heart. Maria explains that this is often unknown to that student, yet the mental energy spent on matching faces to dietary peculiarities inevitably creates a sense of familiarity that is often unreciprocated. And even if you are allergy free, does that mean the person serving you food has no other interest in being there besides receiving a pay cheque at the end of the month? Maria is an outgoing 19 year-old, who can’t help but be friendly and interact with the students she serves. So imagine how some of us make her feel when ignoring her attempts to ask us how our day went.

During breaks, Maria and her co-workers, many of whom are students as well, often speculate on why we act so coldly at times. Her conclusion, drawn from the hundreds of conversations she overhears in caff and formal hall,  is that we are in a mental bubble of our own, a consequence of constantly thinking and talking about academic topics, ‘lab talk’ as she described it. As a consequence, perhaps we forget some basic norms of human interaction in the process.

Maria’s double perspective, as someone who experiences two very different university environments on a daily basis, draws attention to the consequences that can be caused by the enormous amount of attention and significance that many of us attach to our work. The effects on mental health have been extensively discussed. But the coldness that Maria, and, according to her, many other dining staff feel raises the question of whether all this work also makes us less capable to relate to others outside the bubble.

From an account of some of Maria’s worst experiences, the tentative answer would be yes. Not because excess studying turns you into a cold person but, rather that working a lot in the Cambridge environment often propagates that most stereotypical personality trait of a Cambridge student: a self-perception of one’s own superiority or one’s exceptionality, both of which Maria has experienced first-hand. During a conversation with some students in the bar, she was asked whether she was a fresher. Upon answering that she did not study at Cambridge, one student answered, with an unmediated tone of arrogance, "That’s shit", and left the conversation.

Of course, most Cambridge students would never act in such a manner. However, this episode is reflective of the perhaps more common feeling that we are in some way exceptional, in a league above other universities and their student bodies. This is often expressed by how we often complain about the difficulty or workload of our respective subjects. Yet are we really that exceptional? Perhaps the student who belittled Maria would have retracted his comment if he knew that Maria had helped his friend with some third-year supervision work, using Maths she learnt in her home country.

Again, I am not saying that studying at Cambridge is not remarkably hard. What I am questioning is whether we really are justified in thinking that our skills and struggles are that different from students at other universities. Who knows, had Maria been born in England, not worked since the age of 13 and gone to a public school, she could have been the sociable Mathmo in the bar rather than the disillusioned member of dining staff. We often talk about wanting to escape the Cambridge bubble. Maria’s story shows how this bubble is as mental as it is geographical. By acknowledging the value in others, irrespective of whether they serve you food or not, we can burst the mental bubble created by a system which incites us to constantly measure ourselves against others.