Hamilton tries to make dining hall ‘home away from home’

· 4 min read

Hamilton tries to make dining hall ‘home away from home’

Gretchen Hamilton serves up a student’s choice of petit fours at the Cather Dining Complex.
Craig Chandler | University Communication and Marketing
Gretchen Hamilton serves up a student’s choice of petit fours at the Cather Dining Complex. She says hello to everyone and talks with students as they enter and leave the dining hall.

“Make good choices! Be safe!”

Anyone who eats at the Cather Dining Complex has probably heard Gretchen Hamilton’s voice calling this to them as they walk out the door.

Hamilton, a dining service associate at Cather, feels like the dining hall is a “home away from home,” and she wants to make students feel the same way. She hopes students feel welcome from the moment they walk in.

“I want to be a place where everybody feels welcomed and loved and make it a safe, enjoyable experience for everybody,” she said.

Hamilton works the dessert counter most days, but she also helps with dishes and the salad bar. She’s worked at the complex for three years. But even before, Hamilton was no stranger to campus eats: She also worked at the East Campus Dining Center from 2001 to 2010.

Hamilton said she sees every day how food brings people together. Her brother and sister-in-law met at Abel Dining Center.

“You can get a chance to meet people and talk to people you haven’t seen or you don’t know, and maybe you can meet up and have a fun meal,” she said.

Her favorite part of the job? Talking to the students who come to the counter — about their day, about football, about movies or TV.

“I just find that one thing in common with them all,” she said, “and just be able to have a conversation with them.”

Aaron Nix | University Communication and Marketing
Video: Hamilton serves joy and food to UNL students

Hamilton said Nebraska students are fun, sweet, kind and fascinating. She displays several cards and notes she’s received from students she met at the dining hall on her refrigerator at home. One student brought her a card from “The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon” because they knew Hamilton was a fan.

“Having something to look at every day makes you feel very loved,” she said.

Mary Morran, a junior in food science from Houston, said talking to Hamilton at Cather is a bright spot of her day.

“She’s always like a ray of sunshine,” Morran said. “She’ll ask about how you’re doing, how your day was. If you tell her you had an interview or a big project, she’ll remember that, and she’ll ask how it went.”

Hamilton goes out of her way to elevate a student’s day, Morran said, and show them some compassion on a bad one. Morran once came into the dining hall recovering from an illness, mentioning to Hamilton that she wasn’t feeling well.

“She was so sweet,” Morran said. “She was like, ‘Tomorrow will be better. I’m going to give you two desserts, because you need it.’”

Yik Yak post in which students celebrated Gretchen Hamilton, declaring her as the, "glue holding this university together."

Hamilton said she’s thankful to many people for the opportunity to take on her job: co-workers and bosses — Barb, Victoria, James, Emily, Nissa, Alex — but especially her family and late grandfather, as well as her dog and sidekick, Bailey Jay.

Hamilton takes a lot of inspiration from her late grandfather, who she said “lived to give.”

“I try to remember that every day and do the same things for these kids,” she said.

Hamilton’s goal for every student she meets is to see them graduate. Though it’s bittersweet to say goodbye, it’s also gratifying to see their accomplishments, she said.

“It makes me feel very proud to watch them come in as freshmen and leave as seniors, knowing that I’ve impacted some of their lives, hopefully made a difference, like they’ve made a difference in my life,” she said.

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