Valentine Dining Hall can be a really scary place. When entering the war zone that is Val at noon on a weekday, you have to navigate your way through lines that are sometimes 50 people deep, figure out where the end of the salad line is without getting in the way of someone trying to make a sandwich, and you have to grab silverware and cups without bumping into someone or spilling your tray.
The servery isn’t always the scariest part of Val, though. For whatever reason, who you choose to sit with at Val seems hugely important, and showing up solo can sometimes feel like there’s a spotlight shining down telling the world that you’re a loser with no friends.
It happens to me every once in a while, and I think others have experienced it too: class got out at a weird time, or the day has been super busy and whatever usual Val schedule I keep has been disrupted. During these times, I often text friends and teammates, desperate to find someone who’s also in Val. Sometimes I consider Grab-n-Go, but anything sounds better than a plastic-wrapped turkey sandwich (sorry, Grab-n-Go lovers). If all else fails, I end up sitting alone at a table in Val with my tray and my laptop, catching up on work (or pretending to) when I’d really prefer to relax and enjoy a meal with friends.
This problem may seem pretty trivial, but in some instances, particularly among first-years in the beginning of fall semester, students will skip a meal due to the fear of eating alone at Val. Not only is this unhealthy, but it’s a big statement about our dining hall’s social culture; we only have one dining hall and many consider it a place to “see and be seen,” but it should also be a comfortable place to relax and eat.
Class of 2018, you’ve been here briefly but you definitely have the power to change dining hall culture; those of us who have been here for a while also have that power. There are lots of things that need to be fixed in Val, but let’s start with two.
One: Let’s make Val a place where showing up alone isn’t stressful. It may feel awkward to be sitting alone when there are groups of people at surrounding tables, especially at those long tables in the back of Val, but it’s not as awkward as you might think. Chances are that no one is giving it a second thought if you’re sitting alone or not. And first-years, if you haven’t discovered it yet, upstairs Val is the perfect sunny place to enjoy a cup of coffee and breakfast while reading the newspaper or working; lots of students frequent upstairs Val on a daily basis.
Two: Looking for a Val buddy in a time of need shouldn’t be an ordeal. We often forget that meals are meant to be shared when we schedule our crazy-busy days. First-years, in case you are unfamiliar, the blue cups and blue-rimmed mugs in Val are social cups, and they signal to everyone around you that you’re open to sitting with strangers and acquaintances. Although the social cup initiative started last year and has been relatively slow to catch on, maybe the class of 2018 can be the brave souls who will change the dining hall culture by utilizing the social cups. That being said, you don’t need a social cup to step out of your Val comfort zone; simply changing up who we sit with on a day-to-day basis could prove that the social divisions might not be as rigid as we think. If everyone buys in to being friendly and open to sitting with new people, Val wouldn’t be as scary.
With a new layout in store for the dining hall, including lounge-type seating, high-top café style tables and booths, things might be looking up in terms of improving Val’s atmosphere. The fate of the long tables in the back of Val is unknown, but our dining hall will hopefully be a more inviting place for eating alone or with friends.
Still, we have a full semester before we see these changes. How do we want to change dining hall culture before then? A sizeable chunk of our days is spent in Val, and, given how stressful Amherst can be, it’d be nice to consider Val a safe haven. So, to first-years and everyone else: let’s be fearless and friendly in the dining hall so it can be a place we look forward to swiping into every day.