Viking Commons: A Place for Everyone to Get Close… Too Close

The panoramic view of Bellingham Bay from the commons

The line almost always winds up out the door, snaking around in a seemingly nonsensical pattern, moving at a snail’s pace. Considering that it’s only 5:30, about an hour shy of what I would think would be a reasonable time to have dinner, I cannot help but wonder why the line to get in isn’t negligible. Instead I am faced with a crowd of hungry people that any restaurant would be giddy to receive.

This, however, is no restaurant, but the Viking Commons, the dining hall associated with North Campus at Western Washington University. Perched up above Bellingham Bay, this dining hall is arguably one of the most scenic college eateries in the country, offering views that could be considered “million dollar views” for the cost of on campus dining. The views of a college dining hall are only a bonus those who use them as the main job of a commons is to get people their food quickly and efficiently. These eateries are not about the art of dining, but rather the efficiency to keep the attending students moving so they can continue their studies uninterrupted. Thus, things such as comfort and aesthetics are only bonuses.

As I wait with my colleagues amongst the other students, I feel a large drop of water land on my head from one of the many large trees on the campus. It occurs to me that unlike most restaurants, the dining hall does not have a nice waiting area for students to stay warm and dry. A nice waiting area is not necessary, however it would be nice to have an area where one does not have to be exposed to the dismal Washington weather while waiting.

The line outside the Viking Commons

Passing through the doors of the commons after a few minutes of waiting outside, I am faced with a member of the staff, who I assume is a student, taking student IDs and scanning them. “Hi,” she would say as she took and swiped a card quickly followed by, “Have a nice day.” Although it isn’t the warm welcome I expected I realize that this a student who is working this job on top of their studies. I

don’t know if I acted out of pity or common courtesy but I decided to ask, “How are you?” to which I received the flat and generic answer of, “Good,” telling me little about how this job actually treats her. Turning right to enter the cafeteria, I looked over my shoulder to see almost identical interaction carried out, and the person after that and so on. I wouldn’t think a formal greeting would be necessary for a dining hall, but perhaps a little more enthusiasm might improve a first impression of the commons. The smell of Brussels sprouts cooking as I entered may have contributed to their less than dapper moods.

Once in I am engulfed in what I assume is one of the most chaotic social experiments ever conducted. I say this is an experiment because the layout of the area in which one obtains their food has very little to offer in terms of logical design. The first thing that comes to my attention is the horseshoe shape of the room. This shape has no advantage when it comes to managing large groups of people as it funnels everyone into the middle of the room. Along the wall opposite the entrance, there are the three main areas where the workers of the union hand students their food. As a result, everyone’s natural reaction as soon as they enter is to form a line perpendicular to the wall. These lines are not only poorly placed, but are poorly organized, weaving around, changing shapes, by what I can only assume is the natural tendency of people to wander around as they wait. To top it all off, the lines cut across the entire room, creating situations where those who had already picked up their food on the far side of the cafeteria had to cut across all three lines in order to reach the dining area. Each person I watched cross the lines had to awkwardly wait to find a gap to cross or ask someone to move so they could get through. I couldn’t help but feel like some of them were trying to cut in line, leading to an almost primal reaction of not wanting to move to let people through. I wondered if I was the only one feeling this way, but the fact that the line continued to block traffic points to this reaction being natural. I had a similar experience at the Ridgeway Commons at WWU, furthering the thought and indicating that the confusion may be caused by the fact that these are all college students and not working adults.

The salad bar in the cafeteria area of Viking Commons during a low traffic time of day

To add to the chaos, there were three long, 30 to 40 person tables placed perpendicularly to the walls in such a way that the lines to get food traveled between them. The line which I had chosen (Which oddly enough I had no idea what kind of food the line was for) happened to be between two of the three tables. These close quarter situations seem to be quite common in college environments like dorms and classrooms and once I got used to living so close to the people around me, I actually found it to be quite comforting. Quite the contrary to the first time I experienced the dining hall where I felt very small and insignificant which the feeling has since passed.

Bumping around, talking, and moving ever so slowly, I made my way to the front of the line where I had much the same interaction with the student serving the food as I did when I had my card scanned upon entrance. It seemed pretty clear to me at that point that they were here to do their job and get paid rather than work for our satisfaction as “customers”. I say customers tentatively as I realize that everyone there had purchased that meal well in advance, so perhaps the lack of effort on their part to provide customer service was simply because they weren’t working for tips. None of them looked particularly content, but this is most likely because the work at the dining hall offers a way to help these students to pay off tuition. A job at the dining hall carries the benefit of an easy means of compensation, rather than a source of happiness.

I digress; the point being that I received rather small portions for what I was paying for the meal and had to use the self-serve areas like the salad bar and the “food that can’t possibly be healthy for you” portions of the cafeteria to supplement my plate. The selection is actually quite good, offering a wide variety of healthier options and only a few “unhealthy staples” such as pizza or burgers that students can obtain at their own leisure.

Retrieving my plate however was only half the battle as I still had to cut across the lines of people, emerge into a sea of unknown faces, and hope to find a table amongst the crowds. People, standing, sitting, meandering around, the dining hall is a football field sized room which by itself has an incredibly bland style to it. The colors of the walls consist of what appears to be a light green to beige, the lighting is indirect but rather uninteresting, and one of the strangest features at night when I was there was the fact that the windows were mirrored on the inside. I do not know who thought it was a good idea to be able to sit there and watch yourself stuff your face in a window, but whoever did must not have had the experience of watching yourself eat. The room however was filled with what I can only guess was over a thousand students all moving amongst the tables, creating an incredibly challenging visual experience.

Fortunately for anyone, myself included, trying to find a table, whoever had picked the tables for the hall chose a dull, salmon-beige color for the tops, making empty tables fairly easy to see amidst the crowds. There were three types of tables which I happened to observe while I was there. The first was a traditional square table for four which seemed to be the preferred size for groups of people of four or less, particularly individuals. Another was the long and connecting rectangles which could seat six people max by themselves, but turn down right medieval when lined up into 20 person monstrosities. And finally, and preferably, there were the large round tables, which should only seat six, but by some phenomena I cannot currently fathom, people will cram in ten or even twelve due to the apparent lack of corners on the table. There seemed to be a lack of a hierarchy of needs when it came to group size and tables however which was both comical and frustrating at the same time. I found that there were groups of eight people around a four top (really quite the sight), while at the same time there were three or four lonely individuals holding an entire round top, forcing large groups to find other tables. Once again, this seems to be a commonality between college dining halls as students at Colorado State University report similar things happening in their dining hall. Students simply behave differently than adults in a restaurant setting.

“Finding a table in the dining hall is like finding a certain Lego in a box of Legos that someone keeps shaking while you’re trying to find it,” is the way that one of my fellow students put it. The most logical thing to do it seemed when faced with such a task of finding a table in the dining hall was to simply act as if you were going to get a drink from one of the two drink vending machines placed at the far ends of the hall and look for a table while you wrestled your food from falling off your plate. I followed this model and eventually found a table for my group just fine and continued to watch other groups go through the same struggle over the course of my meal.

Although the Viking Commons is not a restaurant (the food is far from that quality), it does seem to move people at a reasonable rate through it during peak dining hours. Most of what I went through was not so much a fault of the commons but rather the fault of the nature of the people who occupied it. Overall I found that although I was confused by the layout, it was navigable and manageable if you had the patience to deal with the hordes of college students, who I am sure were equally confused by the experience at first, but adjusted the more they were exposed to it. I had much the same experience as a matter of fact up at the Ridgeway Commons at WWU, although it seemed far less hectic than the Viking commons. In other words, one goes to a dining hall, not for the quality of the food or service, but for the convenience and comradery of being amongst your friends and people of your age, not dissimilar to the experience of high school cafeterias. However, there was definitely room for improvement.

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