At Illinois State, student workers are an integral component of the University’s day-to-day operations. The relationship is mutually beneficial—students receive hands-on experience in their respective fields while departments receive valuable insights from their student workers.
“The importance of student employees is immeasurable for us,” said Erin Watts, assistant director of marketing, training, and hospitality for Event Management, Dining, and Hospitality. “We’re the largest department in the University; we have well over 1,000 employees, and a large part of that operation is student employees. They’re absolutely instrumental in our day-to-day operations.”
In the midst of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, student workers are embracing new challenges at work while adapting to virtual learning and other life changes. Tashaunna Divers, student personnel manager at Marketplace at Linkins, is one of these students. Life during the pandemic hasn’t been easy, but her passion for food service has kept her going strong.
Earlier this month, University Marketing and Communications photographer Michelle Hassel followed Divers through a typical day in her life as a Redbird student worker.
To start her day, Divers arrived at the test kitchen in the Culinary Support Center of Watterson Dining Commons for her professional practice internship, where she is mentored by Executive Chef Matthew Horton. She started the day by cutting various vegetables to experiment with allergen-friendly recipes.
“The really cool thing I’m doing this semester is that we’re actually testing veggie burger recipes for potential retail locations on campus,” said Divers, a senior food nutrition management major from South Holland.
Divers concocted three combinations for veggie burgers: basic black beans, kidney beans and mushrooms, and portobello mushrooms with broccoli and black beans.
Divers’ internship experience has been invaluable for her professional growth. She notes that Horton and Training Chef Ursula Ganci have helped her immensely.
“Matthew is constantly giving me projects that benefit me,” said Divers. “It’s been a really versatile and fun experience.”
After her internship, Divers headed over to the Marketplace at Linkins and switched gears, going from intern to manager.
Divers originally worked at Watterson Dining Commons her freshman and sophomore years. In March 2019, she was promoted to student personnel manager and moved to Linkins.
“They brought me up because they saw how great my work ethic is,” said Divers. “They noticed that I really do enjoy what I do.”
To Watts, Divers’ success story epitomizes the advancement opportunities available to student workers.
“Students can gain many transferable skills in areas related to teamwork and customer service,” said Watts. “There’s a great opportunity for advancement into a student manager position, and students can build relationships with their peers and make connections with the professional staff who support and mentor students.”
In her role, Divers oversees her fellow student workers while handling tasks such as sanitizing surfaces, refilling machines, preparing food, and working in the back office.
Passionate about her position, Divers has developed a strong rapport with her co-workers. Understanding the challenges of being a student worker, she has taken it upon herself to keep them motivated throughout the pandemic.
“I try to tell my employees that they should be proud of themselves for taking on their roles,” said Divers. “On top of being a full-time student, it’s not easy. It’s something to be proud of.”
Due to COVID-19 guidelines, campus dining looks a bit different this school year. As customers are no longer able to serve themselves, grab-and-go options are prepared for them. Divers and her co-workers also thoroughly sanitize stations on a regular basis.
“The dining centers had to adapt due to COVID-19 and some logistics had to change, but it’s extremely important that our meal plan holders still enjoy high-quality food options safely on a daily basis,” said Watts. “We’ve continued to offer special menu items, treat handouts, and themed meals. We’re hoping that all the meal plan holders still get that special experience.”
After work, Divers found a spot in the Milner Library computer lab to attend class on Zoom. The class was Food Service Management (FCS 318), taught by Assistant Professor Dr. Erol Sozen. Although Divers misses learning in-person classes, she has learned just as much in a virtual setting.
“The class has really been an eye-opener for me,” said Divers. “Just five weeks in, I have learned so much about the different aspects of the restaurant industry.”
The course is especially relevant to Divers, as her ultimate career goal is to open a restaurant. “I come from a long line of women and men that cook, so I’ve always been in the kitchen since I was very young,” said Divers. “That’s why I really enjoy cooking and eating. Food can definitely bring people together, so I would love to have my own restaurant someday.”
During class, Divers contributed valuable insight to a group discussion. She appreciates the opportunity to still be able to connect with her classmates while learning virtually.
Once her class ended, Divers took a minute to unwind before heading home to her apartment. She lounged in the Birds’ Nest, located in the Bone Student Center.
After a long day, Divers enjoys working out and tidying her apartment as ways to blow off steam. She also enjoys watching her favorite shows once she’s finished her homework. After handling the responsibilities of being a student worker, she has learned the importance of taking care of herself.
“You just have to keep your head up, stay motivated, and understand that you’re a student first,” said Divers. “Make sure that you’re taking care of yourself and doing your best to adapt to changes.”