The moment I meet someone new at Princeton, I face the question that invariably arises during a formal introduction: “What do you do on campus?” I have a decision to make regarding what information I disclose or withhold in my answer. Smiling at the inquirer, I begin with the easy part of my response: “I write, design pages, and edit articles for the Nassau Weekly, and I’m a Community Action leader.” Then comes a split-second pause as I internally debate —do I say it, or not? If that day’s decision is yes, then I add in a rush, “And-also-I-work-for-the-Butler-Wilson-Dining-Hall.”
Why do I hesitate to share this fact, when my job in the dining hall is by far my greatest campus commitment? For that matter, why don’t I name it first, given that I spend more hours working in Wucox each week than in all my other activities combined? Because it is so much easier to remain neutrally silent, to refrain from any mention of the involvement that has most significantly defined my Princeton experience so far. Saying nothing is simpler than confronting the unaddressed stigmas associated with my work, compared to more traditional extracurriculars and more estimable student jobs.
For many reasons, a dining hall job isn’t the type of activity that most Princeton students would think to name as an extracurricular. For the majority of my peers, “work” is academic responsibilities, not actual employment. Most students’ non-academic hours are spent in club meetings, performance group rehearsals, entrepreneurial projects, etc. And even among those who do hold paying jobs on or off campus, there is an implicit hierarchy of work type that comes into play when listing involvements. At the top, the most esteemed and impressive employments would certainly bear mentioning, such as internships and research positions, or skilled work with design, technology or social media. The next general tier, less prestigious but fairly safe and respectable, would include departmental office work, tutoring, jobs popular with athletes, or jobs where students can do homework for most of the time. Finally, there are the jobs with the lowest, dirtiest, least advantageous conditions—or at least the connotations of such.
In my experience, few working students, especially those from the lowest tier, consider their jobs to be a significant part of their campus life. Our real jobs, our ambitious, world-changing, dream jobs, are waiting for us after graduation. What work we do in the meantime is just the temporary means of earning the money necessary to pay for the tuition, bills, and social dues that some other students charge home freely. With this prevailing mindset, why would any of us feel meaningfully connected to our menial employment? This struggle to connect is one reason why students can feel disconnected from their university jobs and exclude them from their campus identities, preferring to invest their personal and social lives in the voluntary activities that better represent their interests. Hence, the tendency to leave employment out of the extracurricular roster.
An ambitious campus culture also plays a part in pressuring me to keep silent. I will posit optimistically that most Princeton students don’t consider low-level jobs such as dining hall work to be beneath them. Rather, most of us came here because we want to make a difference in the world once we graduate, and we gravitate to activities that are meaningful, that can help us advance along our path to careers that fulfill our passions. Serving meals, washing dishes and cleaning tables simply don’t fit the bill. And in such an upward-driven world, we who spend valuable time on work that doesn’t particularly impress on a resume, nor lead to valuable contacts, nor generally improve our professional prospects in the least, are seen as disadvantaging ourselves in the great race to that future job.
Dining hall work in particular is a highly visible display of such disadvantage. In the end, whether I advertise my job or not, anyone who takes a meal during my shifts witnesses me clearly at work. My dining hall, Butler/Wilson, serves 900 students per meal on average. That’s 900 of my peers a night who see me in my bright orange uniform apron and may therefore make certain assumptions about my circumstances. For a Princeton student to sacrifice time and ambition to do the unskilled service work that I do, there can be no conceivable explanation but great financial need.
Working in the dining hall is therefore even odder because of its very public implications about income. For people inclined to care about these sorts of things, I’m constantly putting myself out there as someone working my way through college. Does this exposure elicit pity? Disdain? Solidarity? I don’t pretend to know the thoughts of everyone who might spy me spending more nights than not behind the counter in Wucox, wearing my habitual work “uniform”: thick-soled black sneakers topped by a rotation of ratty jeans and a set of proudly-earned Reunions Trucker t-shirts, complete with hair pulled tightly back in Princeton Dining baseball cap.
Compounded with the evident socioeconomic indicator is the at-times awkward situation of literally serving my peers. There’s a strange power split in dining hall work where I at once have authority over other students and yet am there to serve them. I am a voice of authority when I have to tell people at the end of the night that the dining hall is now closed and they need to bus their dishes. And yet if someone tells me that there is a spill on the ground, or asks me to check and see if there is more of a specific food, my job calls for me to respond to the request.
From such peer interactions and from the hundreds of hours spent just observing how Princeton students behave in Butler/Wilson, I can say that people here are generally respectful of the dining hall staff. Overall, our campus community demonstrates more conscientiousness and courtesy than many of the anonymous customers I’ve served in previous jobs. However, there remain certain work tasks that nearly always bring me face to face with instances of carelessness or downright rudeness on the part of my peers, even to the point of making me feel at times demeaned by those with whom I share this campus. Wiping tables at the end of the meal is one such upsetting chore. When I’m finished, I will have a bin heavy with abandoned cups, plates and silverware, used and crumpled napkins, discarded newspapers, forgotten pieces of fruit, lone French fries and more. And I will be full of anger that a student body can’t clean up its own litter and feels entitled to leave it for the staff — adult or student — to deal with. Cleaning the communal salad bar doesn’t bother me. But cleaning up Princeton’s personal messes can be degrading. These episodes elicit in me the most self-consciousness of my status as a service worker, and the most reluctance to disclose this status to others.
Despite these occasional demoralizing incidents, there are many things that I would never trade about my job in the dining hall. Each shift is an extreme change of pace from the competitive Princeton life, and I find that the purely physical effort and automatic tasks have some perks separate from those of a pre-professional job. Humbling, my work helps me to keep perspective in this place that is so isolated from the real world. It surrounds me with fellow student workers who already understand exactly what I’m struggling to express here. We joke, we help one another, we sit and savor ice cream together at the end of the night. The student community that I’ve found in the dining hall is full of people who are genuinely friendly and endlessly supportive, who have a great sense of humor and an unmatched practicality. How can I fail to acknowledge their significant place in my life?
Working in Wucox has complicated implications on a prestigious, historically privileged, professionally-focused campus. Every time that I am asked to describe my extracurricular involvements, I confront the gulf between my experience as a student worker and the Princeton-influenced expectations of the person with whom I’m speaking. But if I never utter the words that could begin to bridge that gulf, to expose the pervasive silence surrounding campus employment and proudly redefine what it means to be “involved” at this university, then I sentence myself and all other student workers to continual shame and censorship.