Hidden Figures of the Dining Hall: NUS College (NUSC) Paperboxes

Without having to glance up from your buzzing phone screen, a casual scan of the QR code would grant you a wholesome meal, nicely plated and ready for your consumption in the dining hall. However, have you thought about the ones who work tirelessly to ease your dining hall experience, and serve you food to tide you through your campus days? 

NUS College (NUSC) Paperboxes is a Ground-Up Initiative (GUI) led by students from NUSC, and their most recent event, ‘A Day in a Life of a Dining Hall Service Staff: Meal Service Tag-Along’, aimed at facilitating direct engagement between the NUSC students and the dining hall service staff in Cinnamon College. Participating students had the opportunity to bond with the dining hall servers one-on-one by helping out with the breakfast meal service, and completing other ad-hoc duties. In this article, we hope to shed light on this meaningful event and the conversations shared, through the lens of both the participating students and the service staff – read on!

Students in the DH putting on hair nets and gloves in preparation for breakfast service

The event kicked-off with haste at 9.30am. Students donned their hair nets and put on their gloves whilst receiving final instructions from the dining hall staff manager, before splitting off to pair up with the meal servers from the different stations. 

After bashful greetings and polite introductions, the paired students and servers gradually warmed up to each other. ‘Honestly, I went in not knowing what to expect. I was slightly nervous as I didn’t know whether I could communicate with my server well, or if we could bond,’ revealed Anne Chan (Y2, Linguistics), one of the student participants. She was paired with the service staff from the Western stall, Wan Neo. ‘However, she was so nice and very friendly from the outset that I quickly got comfortable,’ she continued.

Anne (right) learning from the Western stall server, Shiem Cheng (left)

Whilst helping to serve the meal enhancements (cake rolls, for that morning), Anne talked to Shiem Cheng about her job as a meal server. She found out that Shiem Cheng has to wake up at 4am daily to get to work.Nevertheless, Shiem Cheng looks at the bright side of this, commenting that she enjoys waking up early as it keeps her active and strong. Furthermore, she boasts of her eight grandchildren who make her very proud and keeps her going. 

Another student participant, Marcus Ong (Y2, Computer Science), had a unique experience. He tagged along with Wan Neo, the service staff in charge of the drinks and condiments station. 

Marcus (right) refilling drinks with the guidance of Wan Neo (left)

Marcus expressed his initial hesitancy towards engaging with the service event. ‘I was afraid that the aunties would be frustrated or annoyed at me, as I might cause additional trouble for them!’ he admitted. 

Fortunately, the process went well, as Wan Neo was extremely patient in her guidance. Marcus learnt to help restock, clean, and clear the drinks and condiments section. Whilst taking a photo with Wan Neo, the photographer accidentally knocked into someone holding a cup of coffee, resulting in a coffee spill on the ground. Minor accidents, such as this, actually occur more often than we realise, and it is the dining hall servers, such as Wan Neo, who have to carry out the clean up. In this case, Marcus took the spill with stride, picked up a mop, and learnt to mop the floor. 

Marcus enthusiastically helping to mop up the coffee spill 

The students managed to join the meal servers for their short lunch break, from 11-11.30am. Grabbing their own food of choice from the dining hall stations, the meal servers sat down and engaged in hearty chatter. Yufang (Asian cuisine) shared about how she was able to remember the faces of certain students, and even their meal preferences. The students were pleasantly surprised by this, for the service staff would come across hundreds to thousands of students on the daily. “I pay attention and better remember those who patronise my stall frequently!” she clarified in Chinese.

Service staff having a short lunch break (From the left: Amaravadhi, Kamalachi, Giok Lan, Yufang, Jenny)

Giok Lan (breakfast grab-and-go station), revealed that she had been working as a dining hall server for about 10 years now, since the dining hall’s opening. While she used to be part of the dinner service team, she is happy with her current morning shift, as there would still be a whole day ahead of her after she leaves work, post-lunchtime. Siem Cheng concurred, saying in Chinese, “I will probably get some rest, or maybe go grocery shopping,” upon being asked about what she would do after her shift. 

Amaravadhi (coffee at the grab-and-go station), also explained that the breakfast service team is made up of people from diverse backgrounds, and hence they spoke different languages.

Amaravadhi (right) teaching a student participant to serve coffee

While Amaravadhi and Kamalachi (Malay cuisine) mainly conversed in English, other service staff like Yufang and Shiem Cheng mainly spoke in Chinese. Thankfully, there are a few amongst them who are able to speak both languages, helping to translate whenever necessary. Nevertheless, Amaravadhi revealed that they have developed such chemistry over the years, that they are able to implicitly understand each other on a certain level, even without speaking in the same language. “She would speak in Chinese, and I would reply to her in English!” Amaravadhi laughed, while talking about her conversations with Yufang. 

Finally, the students joined the service staff in clearing their food and moving to the back of the grab-and-go station to prepare sandwiches for next day’s breakfast.

Yufang making egg mayo sandwiches, with Shiem Cheng and other students helping in the background

Reflecting upon the overall experience, Marcus expressed that the event helped him better understand the different roles and tasks taken up by the dining hall staff. For instance, he and the other students did not know that the service staff had actually prepared the grab-and-go sandwiches themselves, the day before the next breakfast service. Furthermore, he found it eye-opening to learn about the different walks of life that each service staff came from, and how they each had their own motivations for doing their job. 

Similarly, Anne felt that it was a great opportunity to personally meet the people who served them food daily. “We often tend to take them for granted,” she admitted, continuing, “I think that talking to them allowed me to empathise with them more, and I became more grateful for the things that they do for us.” 

As the students bid the service staff goodbye, they smiled at the comforting fact that they would see the friendly faces of these aunties, whom they have gotten to understand better, again the next morning.

We hope that the stories shared about this experience will spur you towards greater interaction with your own dining hall’s service staff, or even other staff members who contribute to the inner-workings of your hostel. Remember to show them your appreciation – even small actions can go a long way! If you have your own stories to share (perhaps a cute interaction you’ve had with a dining hall service staff member), do post them on Instagram and tag us @nusresidentiallife. We would love to hear it!


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