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7 Lessons From Working In The Dining Hall Of My Elite Ivy League College

When you say you went to an Ivy League for college, people tend to assume your family is loaded. And in most cases, that’s probably right. My alma mater, for instance, has more students from the top 1% of income-earners than from the entire bottom 60%. But in my case, even though my family isn’t by any accounts, poor, with my parents living in India and my dad retired, they certainly couldn’t afford the $60K price tag that came with most private colleges.

I was lucky to get a generous financial aid package from my alma mater, which, when combined with scholarships and some assistance from my parents, covered tuition. However, I agreed to cover living expenses on my own, which meant my first job involved working in campus dining halls all four years of college. Here, in no particular order, are my seven biggest takeaways from working dining services at my elite college.

1. People treated me like I was inferior. The people I served were largely my classmates, so it was frequently surprising how little basic respect and decency I felt I got while on the job. I could probably count the number of people who made eye contact with me on one hand per shift — same goes for the number of people who said “hello” and “thank you.” The same students who’d chat with me in class frequently didn’t realize I was behind the register, or wouldn’t acknowledge my presence there — something that made all that class time way more awkward for me.

2. Wealthy people steal, too. As a cashier, it was my job to detect and prevent theft when I saw it. And more often than not, the kids stashing an extra sandwich in their hoodies or stuffing Vitamin Waters into their backpacks were not my fellow scholarship kids — they tended to be the wealthy kids, the kind with the unlimited meal plans and extra dining cash on their cards. Our dining areas were not exactly high-security facilities, and more often than not, when someone was caught stealing, they were politely asked to put the food back or pay for it — there were no serious disciplinary consequences. Considering there was little in the way of actual punishment for those who stole, I found it extremely interesting that the people who tended to steal were the ones who could easily afford the food they took. Somewhere, there’s a societal metaphor in there.

3. Sometimes just smile, stay calm, and nod when people treat you badly. That doesn’t mean they’re right. People would yell or snipe at me for the stupidest reasons — we were out of their favorite Odwalla flavor, there was too much mayo on their sandwich, the cookies we sold were too small. People got MEAN. And early on, I took their nastiness really personally, like it was my personal failing as a human that our cookies were disproportionately sized. But eventually, I realized that people snap and yell more often because they’re in a bad mood, or having a crappy day — it’s generally nothing to do with who they’re lashing out on. It doesn’t make it right, but sometimes, you just need to nod, smile, and move on, rather than letting it get to you. Learning not to take people’s rudeness personally has been a skill that’s served me well with many a poor-mannered supervisor ever since.

4. People will tell you to smile. A lot. I was working as a full-time student, which meant squeezing in shifts between classes, homework, extracurriculars, and a social life, so I frequently got to my job after a long day of other things. And while I did my best to seem friendly, if I’d had a dollar for the number of times people (men, tbh) would tell me to smile, I probably wouldn’t have needed the job to begin with. Also, I definitely never heard my male coworkers being asked to hand out smiles with their falafel roles. I’m aware I was probably shielded from way more egregious behavior working in a college dining hall instead of a more typical restaurant or bar setting, but even still, to experience it from your fellow students, alums, even occasionally a professor or two, is a whole new level of gross. It’s annoying. It’s sexist. And it’s particularly frustrating when the power dynamic means you can’t call it out.

5. Even at elite institutions, the playing field isn’t level. It’s easy to think that once you make it into an Ivy, you’re set. As I found out, working 12-20 hours a week meant less time to study, or to take on more prestigious unpaid internships. It meant taking on extra shifts right around exam season, because I needed the money. And all those things, directly or not, impacted my grades, my resume, and the opportunities I was able to pursue while in school. In contrast, the majority of my friends, who came from highly-privileged backgrounds, were free to focus on school, or their job search, or socializing while I was at work. It’s a gap that starts out small, but widens over time. And until elite institutions recognize that some students are under different burdens, it’s not going to change.

6. Service jobs are HARD. I have worked a lot of 9-5 office jobs since graduating college and I can guarantee, none of them were as physically exhausting and mentally draining as my stint in service jobs. Not only did my cafeteria job require being on my feet for hours at a stretch, unlike at my desk jobs, where I could hide behind my computer and glower, working a service job literally doesn’t allow you to be in a bad mood. You’re expected to keep smiling and stay upbeat no matter what the circumstance — from cleaning up puke on a Friday night to having some random asshole hit on you. And that’s even more exhausting than the physical labor bit.

7. …and yet, they hardly get the respect they should. If you look at my resume, there’s not a single mention of the four years I spent doing dining service work — in fact, my career counselor in college explicitly told me not to put it on, despite it being the activity I spent the most time on, because it might make me look “less professional” to potential employers. We stigmatize service jobs as something only the lazy or unmotivated do. Considering that, in reality, these are some of the toughest jobs out there, that’s a real shame.

Meghan Koushik is a cheese enthusiast and law student in California. You can find her on Instagram.

Image via Unsplash

  • Mayeesha Mehrebin

    It’s interesting that you were told to leave your service job off your resume! I’m studying law as well (in Australia) and recruiters from law firms that I’ve met have overwhelmingly emphasised HAVING past work experience (be that as a waitress, in admin, or whatever) over having experience in my field. Personally, I think it shows your work ethic and bunch of other skills that you’ll most likely need at any grad job!

    • meghan

      i was surprised too! i actually specifically included both this and another service job I was working on my resume freshman and sophomore year, while looking for internships (also I had so little on my resume at that time!) and it worked out, but when i met someone for a ~career consultation~ as a junior they were like yeah, please remove this stuff and replace it with something substantive, it won’t impress employers and might even cause them to look at you negatively, when compared with someone who spent that time working for Google or whatever. I left all my service jobs up on Linkedin (which I consider my longform resume of sorts) but it hasn’t appeared on my paper resume since!

    • Alexis

      I couldn’t agree with this more – whenever I see someone has studied but hasn’t worked, I’m very wary of putting them into my team. If you have studied but haven’t worked, you bring knowledge (hopefully!) but no immediately applicable skillset to any role we may have. I’ll take the person who worked 4 jobs through uni over the privileged student who had plenty of time to join the student societies any day of the week. I appreciate however that Australian workplaces are probably culturally quite different to American workplaces.

    • lazuliz

      My current employer will only hire people that have worked in the service industry at some point in their careers. We are a consulting company and it is important to remain professional and polite with our clients and regulatory agencies regardless of the circumstances. Valuable skills that you can learn working in the service industry.

  • ameliagarvey

    This hit so close to home (especially that part about Odwalla, oh my god). Being looked at like I was inferior by fellow students was the worst part of my campus food service job.

    That is super unfortunate that they told you to not include that job on your resume. It’s insane how undervalued these kinds of jobs are. You learn so many important and transferable skills by working in service, like communication, time management, and work ethic. These kinds of skills are definitely relevant in professional environments.

    • meghan

      totally! now that i’ve done a few hiring cycles myself, i feel like I’d look POSITIVELY on someone who managed to work 20hrs a week in any capacity while also doing classes and extracurriculars and whatnot, but I’m also sadly aware that many others (even if they don’t see as a negative) don’t share that perspective. reasons why we need diversity of all kinds in the workplace!

      • ameliagarvey

        Exactly! Service experience is so valuable! You’re totally right, it is yet another reason why diversity in the workplace is so, so important.

    • Sarah

      I worked a similar job, but at my public university. Definitely understand the strange look of pity from fellow students who didn’t have to work. And it was always working class students, who’d had service jobs before, that remembered to say thank you and who cleaned up after themselves after leaving the dining hall. It wasn’t the best job, but I wouldn’t change it for anything because I learned so much.

  • Mary

    I worked as a server throughout college and I still think it was the best experience for me personally. I agree with everything you said. It’s amazing how people can literally ignore servers. My husband and I both worked in restaurants and we get so upset when we go out to eat with people and they’re rude to the servers or don’t tip! It’s hard work and I feel like it prepared me for a career better than a lot of unpaid internships ever could have. That said, I ended up landing a great academic receptionist position at my university for my junior and senior years and it was amazing how much my grades improved and how much better I was treated having a job like that.

  • lateshift

    Also, the very meta #8 (and I’m typing this as someone who was in the exact same situation as you were at an Ivy League-level school – except that my parents, rather than being “not poor by any accounts,” actually WERE poor by EVERY account, and I DIDN’T get a financial aid package that one would describe as “generous,” given the fact that my blue-collar dad was unemployed for 50% of the time I was in school, and my mom for 100% of that time, and my family had no assets beyond a crumbling house with two mortgages on it): It’s possible that, due to these circumstances, you will go through college and the years immediately beyond it carrying a chip on your shoulder the size of a Volkswagen. Which is obviously exhausting, and not a terribly healthy thing to do. A little advice from me to you: it’s ok to put the thing down. It really is. Trust me, you’ll be happier for it in the long run.

    Because the thing I learned very early in my time on campus – but not early enough – is: yes, the rest of your peers at this place started on third base while you were in the dugout, and many are oblivious to that fact, and you’ll have to run 5 times as fast just to catch up, and it will be tough as hell, and of course it’s not fair. But sadly, NO ONE ELSE CARES (at least, no one outside your immediate family), or ever will, and in life, you won’t ever get any extra credit for having done so. What you WILL get is an Olympic-level work ethic that will serve you so well you’ll lap those entitled peers in the long run….unless you let yourself get crushed by resentment over the unfairness of it all. Which: this article isn’t a good sign. Just a little friendly advice from someone who’s been there.

    (Related: your career counselor is right – a service job, while solid work, actually ISN’T a great indicator of someone’s ability to handle white-collar work or an office environment, and doesn’t necessarily belong on a resume seeking those positions, since we do not live in a perfect world, so putting less-relevant positions on a resume can make a person appear unfocused or not serious about their chosen professional arc… Listen to the career professional, and mention it in the interview to stress your discipline level, if you want, because then you can give the reasons you took the job, BRIEFLY. Practice doing it without sounding as pissed off about it as this post.

    Also, given the level of judgment displayed here for your fellow students for not chatting you up while grabbing breakfast, I hope and assume the silver lining is that it has resulted in you yourself being invariably sunny and respectful to fast food workers, treating them like peers and taking time for every pleasantry, each time you hit McDonald’s while under the time crunch and level of stress most students at a demanding school are under?)

    The resentment will eat you alive if you let it. DON’T LET IT.
    Good luck.