‘Twas the week after Thanksgiving, and all through The MARK on 5th Street, assistant manager Jon Lawson was making his dining hall festive and neat.
Like the managers of other dining facilities across campus, Lawson was busy decorating his hall with snowflakes and snowmen, wreaths and angels, Santas and Hanukkah menorahs. Choosing decorations is a joint effort by the managers of all the facilities, Lawson said, and he plays a role in that process. The goal, he said, is to be “as inclusive as possible.”
“What we’ve eventually evolved into is we do ‘winter,’ with a nod towards the different faiths or belief systems that are during this season,” Lawson said.
The managers take student feedback into account, Lawson said, but they tend to take a more passive approach in figuring out what students want.
“In many cases, (students) usually just come up to us and tell us,” Lawson said. “We don’t go out and say, ‘What faith or belief system are you?’ We just wait until they come up and say something, and we’re like, ‘Oh cool, so where can we get this?’”
Lawson said he’s willing to put up decorations to respect all students’ customs, but he said the only way he can address students’ concerns in the future is if they approach him and discuss what changes they’d like to see.
“We had some people remind us that Kwanzaa is on the radar with all of this as well,” Lawson said. “And again, I’m like, ‘I’m happy to put it out there, but I don’t know where anything is.’ And so I contacted the Black Culture Center, and they connected me with the gentleman in California who actually started (Kwanzaa), and they had a website and we ordered the whole thing, the whole kit, and that year we set an entire serving line with just Kwanzaa stuff.”
Once he gets the items, though, Lawson encourages the students to educate him on how to handle and display religious objects properly.
“I said, ‘Tell me how we’re supposed to do this,’” Lawson said. “I don’t want to just slap it up there, and then you’re just like, ‘Stupid Americans, you don’t know what you’re doing.’ I want to make sure I respect their customs and procedures as well.”
From a departmental standpoint, Campus Dining Services aims for an “inclusive and festive” policy, director Julaine Kiehn said.
“We try to avoid offending anyone from the beginning,” Kiehn said. “We try to be proactive, and then we end up apologizing if we offend someone and changing what we do in the future. … It’s unfortunate because then you’re leery to do things. We want people to feel welcome. How do you do that and not become so vanilla that there’s nothing left?”
This is why CDS tries “to have some very generic, ‘this time of year’-type decorations,” CDS Marketing Manager Michael Wuest said. He explained that the goal of decorating the dining halls in the first place is to help students feel a connection with their home while on campus.
“We really look at the dining facilities as an extension of a student’s home,” Wuest said. “They live in the residence halls; they eat in the dining halls. And the dining halls are basically like your kitchen. And you go to a lot of people’s homes, and the majority of the people I know decorate for the season. … It’s just really to help people feel warm and welcomed and comfortable in our facilities.”
Lawson echoed the sentiment that the dining halls are an extension of students’ homes, but added that over the years, he’s learned the hard way that some students are more interested in theft than creating a respectful, homey environment.
“You have to tread a fine line between buying decorations that represent everything, and yet aren’t nice enough that people want them,” Lawson said. “Because the year we did the Hanukkah display, by the time that year was over, all I had left was my plastic menorah. Everything else was gone.”
Lawson gestured toward the decorations on display in The MARK, which included sparkly ornaments, small evergreen trees and a plate with a Hanukkah menorah on it.
“This year, we have stuff out that in previous years, we wouldn’t dare put out because it would disappear,” Lawson said. “But it depends on the kids of that year. But it was fine. But what mattered was that it was out there.”
One factor that makes colleges unique, Lawson said, is that students get to interact with people from different backgrounds on a daily basis. For him, this is what makes his job worthwhile.
“The neatest thing about working at a college is that nowhere else in the world, nowhere else in anyone’s life, are they going to be exposed to so many different cultures in one place, and it’s the time to learn about that and to enjoy them and to celebrate the differences that make everybody unique,” Lawson said. “So I always like it when they say, ‘Hey, you need to do this,’ and I’m like, ‘Cool, let’s do it.’”