Last Thursday, many students at the College spent the day trying to engage with and understand their fellow members of this community. Though much of the focus on Claiming Williams has been on relations among students, the College is more than just us: We students call this place home for a fleeting four years, but staff, faculty and residents stick around and maintain the foundation of the community. With this thought in mind, the students of the Dining Services Committee coordinated with Dining Services to allow students the opportunity to volunteer and get a feel for working in the dining halls, as well as to free up the dining staff themselves to allow them to participate in the events of the day.
In the spirit of Claiming Williams, I decided to participate in this venture by volunteering at Whitmans’. When I reported for duty, I was immediately whisked in and handed a snazzy Dining Services baseball cap. I was pleasantly surprised to see that there were several other students helping out too. Since most of the staff was also there and it was long before dinner “rush hour,” Whitmans’ was pretty quiet. I stacked some cups, washed some counters, made some side-salads and then sat clicking a counter as students sauntered in for their free meal, courtesy of Claiming Williams. In all fairness, there was still plenty of work to be done, I just didn’t know how to do most of it – staff busied themselves heating and preparing food and the two student workers ran around supplying dishes, filling up the cornbread and trying not to burn themselves as they swapped empty apple pie pans.
Granted, maybe I didn’t exactly carry the team with my work, but the true value of this activity wasn’t simply in recruiting extra labor. Besides, I’m pretty clumsy; I probably would have been more hindrance then help. “[It’s about] getting students into the shoes of the staff, who do such a wonderful job,” said Janna Gordon ’11, who was part of organizing the event for the original Claiming Williams two years ago. “It gets students to appreciate what the staff does a little more … that they’re always on their toes. Sometimes it seems so effortless, but [staff members] put a lot of work into it.”
In this sense, I certainly got a better appreciation for our Dining Services staff – if you think we college students are good multi-taskers, you need to take a closer look at what Dining Services is doing. Even in a lull, the staff is constantly preparing and making sure everything is as it should be. We take for granted that the soup bowls will always be where they are and the juice machines are full, but maintaining the pleasant equilibrium that we have come to expect in our dining halls demands a never-ending flurry of activity.
It’s a small thing, but the element of having understanding for what other people in your community do for you is powerful. Williamstown is an easy place to live for we students – we have hot meals cooked, our bathrooms and halls cleaned, our snow plowed – and this ease of living allows us to focus more on our studies than the practical necessities that exist in the “real” world. However, we may not always stop to appreciate the people upon whom we depend to facilitate our lives here, much less the skill and effort that their work requires. Appreciation and recognition of each other seems to be at the root of community. Nevertheless, in this case the volunteering program allowed for more than just a token of appreciation – according to Dining Services, the help of student volunteers actually allowed for changes to help accommodate the inclusion of the dining staff into the activities of Claiming Williams.
“The students are a great help when they come on Claiming Williams night, just [as] an extra helping hand,” said Gayle Donohue, manager for Mission Park dining hall. “Staff who want to go to other events are able to go.”
In addition to freeing up the staff on duty, Late Night at Whitmans’ was cancelled, though dinner was extended to 11 p.m. to compensate. “[That way] Late Night staff could come in and be a part of the day’s activities,” said Chris Abayasinghe, assistant director of student dining.
This student volunteer program was an admirable attempt on behalf of students to both broaden and deepen our sense of community through inclusion. If nothing else, though, the evening left me thinking about ways in which we could better this aim. We students get an entire day off classes; staff still has to make this campus run. It’s a job that has to be done, but concepts like helping out in the dining halls seem integral to the central idea of Claiming Williams Day: We are all in this together.