When I arrived at Brown, a delighted, wide-eyed freshman, each moment was a novelty. My first time swinging open the door to Archibald-Bronson; my first sweaty basement party; my first 9 a.m. class. On move-in day—a day full of firsts—I headed to the dining hall for one of the greatest rites of passage: my very first college meal. My newfound friends and I yanked open the obscenely heavy doors, stumbled up the linoleum steps, and strode into the glaring lights and ringing conversation of the Sharpe Refectory. Dazed and overwhelmed, I handed my student ID to the woman behind the entrance table.
“Hello,” she said, smiling. “First time at the Ratty, yeah?” I nodded silently, suddenly swamped by the great unfamiliarity of the moment. At home, dinner meant family gathered around the same table, a repetitive repertoire of dishes, an ease and comfort that seemed impossibly far from the chaos of the Ratty.
“Well come on in, honey!” said the cashier, shaking me out of my stupor. “The main dish line starts over there… If you need anything, just come ask,” she encouraged. It was just a few words of kindness, but her warmth put me at ease. I felt welcomed, grounded amongst the sprawling pandemonium of the space around me. “Thank you,” I said.
Brown University’s dining halls are an indispensable element of the college experience, and a necessity for most undergraduate students. However, it’s the Brown Dining Service (BDS) employees who transform that necessity into something cheerful and welcoming. They are the ones who bring the comfort of our homes and families into our dining halls. Whether greeting us at the entrance or laying out the dishes, refilling our coffee or frying our eggs, BDS employees ensure that we feel taken care of.
Despite my deep appreciation for the people who feed me, I recently realized that I haven’t shared much more than a “hello” with many BDS employees. In the crush of the self-serve line or the methodical speed of the build-your-own stations, my panicked need to secure sustenance prevented me from making connections with the staff. But how could I hope to share homey meals in a dining hall served by people I haven’t yet gotten to know? Determined to create that sense of family, I chatted with five BDS employees about their work at Brown and their lives beyond.
My first stop was the Ivy Room, where I was greeted at the doors by Octavia Pacheco, a cashier for BDS. “I cook a lot of Portuguese food, I love to dance… All in the Portuguese way!” shared Pacheco, who grew up in Portugal and came to the US with her family when she was seven years old. “It was very different for us here, we were very poor in the beginning,” said Pacheco. “But we eventually moved to Providence, I got married and started to work at Brown, and I’ve been here my whole life.” As a cashier, it’s Pacheco’s job to swipe people into the dining halls, meaning she spends more time interacting with students than other BDS employees. “I am so honored to work at Brown… I really like working with you guys, the students are number one,” she shared.
Pacheco loves to cook for others, and will often cater for baptisms or other parties—mostly Portuguese food. In her limited free time, she also loves to crochet and dance. “You know, when I was younger I did a lot of gymnastics, and when I met my father-in-law, I told him I knew how to do the splits,” Pacheco shared. “He said, ‘No you don’t,’ and so I showed him!” Pacheco is from the Azores region of Portugal, and hopes to retire there soon. “That’s my dream, to go back home for good.” With this goal in mind, Pacheco works seven days a week and often does over time—you’ll see her everywhere. “Say hi!” said Pacheco, smiling.
On my way toward the exit, I ran headfirst into Shawn Spardello, whom I recognized as an Ivy Room constant. I asked if he wanted to be interviewed, and he pshawed while leading me over to a table. Spardello’s life motto? “I pretty much take the good and throw away the bad, that’s the best you can do every day.” Spardello is a temp for BDS—you can often find him whipping out Ivy Room smoothies or sandwiches with enthusiasm. “I’ve been here six or seven months, and I’m waiting for the right spot to open up here for a permanent position,” Spardello explained. “I like this job because it’s organizational, it’s methodical, but then you get to feed the kids and keep them happy.” Spardello works seven days a week, and has a second job at a diner in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. “I’ve got a son in Florida and a daughter here that just got married, so that’s why I’m working so much!” he shared.
Spardello grew up in Lincoln, Rhode Island, and has been working in food service his whole life. “Feeding people feeds me, it makes me happy!” he exclaimed. Spardello doesn’t have much free time beyond work and household tasks, but he loves that he gets to spend most of his day with college students. “It’s hard to be cognizant on an empty stomach,” remarked Spardello. “I know kids are leaving class early to beat the line, and I can’t condone that, but I did the same thing a hundred years ago when I was in school!”
Waving goodbye to Pacheco and Spardello, I began the quick trek across campus to the V-Dub, the other dining hall I deemed laid-back enough to accommodate a nosy student. I grabbed a muffin and began to chat up the woman laying them out. She wasn’t interested in an interview, but pointed in the direction of the kitchen. “I’m sure Maria wants to talk!”
“Food makes people happy, that’s what I like about working here,” shared Maria, a food service employee. “I fix the lines, lay things out… I like to work with the food, but I really like to talk to you kids!” Like Pacheco, Maria grew up in the Azores region of Portugal, and immigrated to the United States when she was 14 years old. “It was very tough when we first came to this country, but now I love it, I’ve been here almost 50 years,” she explained.
In her free time, Maria likes to go out, to cook, and to spend time with her family. She has three grandchildren, and they each bring her so much joy. “With my grandchildren, we go to movies. They love to watch Disney!” When I remarked that I had just chatted with a woman who loves to cook Portuguese food, Maria exclaimed, “Oh, Octavia!” Maria also loves to cook Portuguese food for her family, especially seafood. “My granddaughter loves my food,” she said, grinning. “Yesterday, I made shrimp for her in the Portuguese way and she was so happy!” Maria plans to retire in the next few years, and is looking forward to having more time to travel and be with her loved ones. “First, I want to go visit Azores, stay and relax for a while… It’s such a beautiful island,” she said. “But right now, I love to work here, I love the kids, so much energy!”
Maria gestured to another woman working behind the food line, encouraging her over. “This is Marie,” she said, introducing us. Marie is quiet, but was quick to express how much she enjoys working at Brown. “I love my job here, I have everything I need!” she explained. Marie grew up in Cape Verde, an island country off the coast of Africa. “I came here for vacation a long time ago, and I stayed because it is easier to be here than in my country,” she shared. Marie started working for Brown in 2002, on a recommendation from a friend. “I have my job, I have my house, I have my car, I can go to my country every year, I can take care of my daughter… There is nothing else that I need.” Marie’s daughter went to college nearby, and is now working as a nurse practitioner. “She got married this December, so I’m hoping for a grandchild soon!”
Marie loves to go out with her husband, whether it’s parties and events or shopping and vacations. “When I get off work, I go home to do all my things, and then we relax or go out,” she explained. Marie has three years left before her retirement, and plans to spend a lot of time traveling. “I’d like to go back to Cape Verde often, to visit where I grew up,” she said. “But I will keep coming back here, this is my home now too.”
After saying goodbye to Marie, I greeted the cashier swiping cards at the entrance. He introduced himself as Nelson Lopes, lead food service worker. “I love interacting with the students and getting to see the progress from freshman to senior year,” he shared. Lopes grew up in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, and started working at Brown through an internship in high school. “I had fun, I felt like I was learning and being productive, and I just ended up staying here,” said Lopes. He explains that in his role as lead food service worker, “I manage all the things the supervisor doesn’t handle.”
Lopes’s home life is busy and happy—he has five children who are between five and 19 years old. “I’ve got four boys and the youngest is a girl… She’s very spoiled by her brothers!” Lopes spends most of his free time with his kids, who love to play sports and adventure. “My daughter is just five, she’s still finding out what she likes to do, but she’s got a ton of support,” he said. Like Marie, Lopes is originally from Cape Verde, and hopes to move back when he retires. Of his country, he says, “It’s just a whole different world there, it’s so free, everything you eat is fresh and the air is clear!”
While chatting with Octavia, Shawn, Maria, Marie, and Nelson, I was rocked by a sense of joy and gratitude. The gap between my cozy family dinners and my meals in Brown’s cafeterias is shrinking, made smaller by connections to the people who feed me. We united over our love of sharing meals and cooking for our loved ones, and I saw the care and intention behind the food served in the dining halls. When I see Portuguese food on the menu, I think of Octavia and Maria. When I go to the Ivy Room for a smoothie, I seek out Shawn. When I think about traveling, I remember the love Marie and Nelson shared for Cape Verde. Just as I thank my parents for nourishing me, I thank the dining hall staff for doing the same. Little by little, I’m building a family within my college world, and I’m beyond happy that the BDS employees are becoming a part of it.