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Stiles and Silliman Black dining hall workers speak on their time at Yale Words by Cassidy Arrington, Natalie Kainz, and Zaporah Price. Photos by Cassidy Arrington, Natalie Kainz, and Lukas Flippo.

The residential college dining halls would not be complete without the Yale hospitality staff that serve the Yale community every day.

The News got the chance to speak with four Black dining hall workers, representing two residential colleges, Ezra Stiles and Silliman. Together, the employees represent over four decades of Yale Hospitality experience, some having joined staff as recently as a few years ago and others over more than a decade past. In interviews with the News, staff members recounted their favorite experiences working at Yale, their memories of past Black History Months and their plans for the future. Some described their role within the Yale community.

Samone Davis. Photo by Cassidy Arrington.

“I’m a mother, I’m an uplifter,” Samone Davis of the Stiles dining hall told the News. “Especially if [I’ve met] your parents, I’m going to ask about your studying … because we’re helping [students] get ready for the future.”

Davis has worked as a part of Yale Hospitality staff for two decades. She held two jobs during her first 14 years as a Yale employee. Davis said she left her second job and now works full time in the Stiles dining hall.

Outside of work, Davis said she loves traveling, especially on cruises, which allow her to be out in the open sea. Her favorite cruise vacations have taken her to Mexico and Haiti, and she hopes to one day go to Castaway Cay — a Disney-owned island in the Bahamas — and take the Disney cruise.

She said that Yale students remain her favorite part about her job. Over the years, she has appreciated getting to know students on a personal level. Pre-pandemic, Davis fondly remembered the Yale football team, who often came to the Stiles dining hall in the morning after they practiced at Payne Whitney Gymnasium. “I know all of them,” she said.

Lee Gormany. Photo by Cassidy Arrington.

Lee Gormany, who also works at the Stiles dining hall, echoed his care for the Yale students he helps feed.

“The students, you guys, you’re all my favorite,” Gormany said. “That’s why I try to remember so many names.”

Gormany was born in Philadelphia, but moved to New Haven when he was three years old in 1959 after his father got a job working for the New Haven railroad. Gormany started as a member of the hospitality staff more than 15 years ago after some years working at a factory.

Gormany is an ardent supporter of Yale's basketball and football teams. Pre-pandemic, Gormany said he enjoyed taking his son to basketball games at Payne Whitney.

“I used to love it, and I was one of the loudest at the games too,” he said. “You should’ve seen me.”

Gormany said he started playing basketball when he was eight years-old and played all the way until he was 40. He played on a couple of basketball teams growing up, including at the local New Haven Boys & Girls Club. Growing up, Gormany said his dream was to be a pro basketball player, so he spent all of his days practicing.

Unknown to many, Gormany said, is that he used to sing with his friends as a teenager. Starting at 15, Gormany would be invited to parties to sing songs by soul trio The Temprees with his friends.

He described himself as a jokester that enjoys making his coworkers laugh.

Ezra Stiles dining hall. Photo by Lukas Flippo

Juma Sei ’22, a junior in Stiles, spoke to the News about the importance of Yale hospitality staff members like Davis and Gormany.

“The dining hall workers I’ve come to see as a second family,” Sei told the News. “In this University full of people that don’t look like me, these are the only people that I’m seeing on a consistent basis that share my skin tone.”

He recalled his mother meeting Davis during his first year. Now as a junior living off campus, Sei said he checks in with Davis when he gets a chance to go to the dining hall.

“He’s going to do great,” Davis said about Sei. “I always tell him to send his mom my love.”

Sei said he is concerned that the population of Yale hospitality staff are oftentimes “invisible” to the larger Yale community, noting pre-pandemic he would see students scan their ID cards and walk past the person at the front desk or the people serving at the grill counter. He said from then on, he wanted to make sure that he talked to the people who “[prepare] the food that I’m eating and are literally giving me life.”

Thu Hoang ’23, a sophomore in Silliman, said that whenever she comes into the dining hall, the staff always greet her with a smile and ask how her day went. She said that she is more familiar with the dining hall workers now that students can only eat in their own residential college.

“I feel like [this semester] they’re more familiar with my face and I know their faces better,” said Hoang. “The first day I was back they were like ‘Hi! Welcome home!’ They’re all really friendly.”

Andrea Cogdell. Photo by Cassidy Arrington.

But Andrea Cogdell, a dining hall worker in Silliman, said she still misses talking to students while they eat in the dining hall. She also misses meeting famous people when they visit Yale — something she hasn’t been able to do recently due to the pandemic.

“I miss a lot of the things we used to have for the kids — the reunions, the senior dinners — stuff like that,” said Cogdell. “We never knew 2019 was going to be our last year to have fun with the students and my employees.”

Cogdell grew up in New Haven and has worked for Yale for about 20 years, including 10 years as a non-contracted part-time employee. She told the News that off-shift, she loves to dance, sing and play the drums. She began to learn how to play the drums when she was 12 years old and, in the 90s, served as the drummer for the Black Church at Yale for four years.

Dorothy Fullins. Photo by Cassidy Arrington.

Dorothy Fullins, a dining hall worker in Silliman College, started working for Yale Catering five years ago. Last year, after giving birth to a daughter, Fullins returned from maternity leave and secured a job in the dining hall. She has slowly grown accustomed to the new environment, but said that she is still working on navigating Yale’s expectations.

“You do have to code switch,” said Fullins. “[There’s] the Black expression and Yale expectation[s] and you have to learn how to bring it to a happy medium and I’m still working on that.”

In the future, Fullins hopes to take the culinary and networking experience she has acquired during her time at Yale to dedicate more time to her own dessert catering business — Want Some Sweets — a business idea born out of conversations with family.

Until then, she thinks working at Yale is the most fitting job for her.

“I bring the laughs; I bring in jokes; I don’t want to come to work and be just like ‘I’m at work and I have to be quiet,’” said Fullins . “If no-one else does, your dining hall workers — the people that feed you everyday — they care.”

Sh-Ronda Jones-Cooper. Photograph by Cassidy Arrington.

Sh-Ronda Jones-Cooper has been working for Yale for 15 years as a staff employee and an additional three years as a part-timer. She said she has enjoyed meeting students from all over the world.

“If the students [are] not here, my day is very boring, so I love when they come in,” said Jones-Cooper. “I speak to them when they come in, I ask them questions, I ask how their day is going. I’m their cheerleader.”

During the daytime, Jones-Cooper works as a supervisor at the Yale New Haven Hospital, and in the evenings, she works at the Silliman dining hall. She has worked at the YNHH since 1999 and said she hopes to keep her part-time gig at the dining hall forever.

While Jones-Cooper enjoys engaging with students, she hopes that Yale Dining faculty will improve their efforts to represent the Black workers and students who frequent their facilities. Jones was disappointed to see that there were no decorations in the dining hall for Black History Month as there typically are for other holidays.

“New Haven has a lot of Black Americans and I would like to come to work and see that my job is representing me,” Jones-Cooper said.

Outside of her life at Yale, Jones-Cooper enjoys spending time with her husband, children and grandchildren. She loves to decorate for family and friends whenever they ask her, and always has a Bible verse with her to share and brighten someone’s day. In reflecting on the impact of community youth outreach in her own life, Jones-Cooper hopes that one day she will be able to support a community outreach program for New Haven youth, where more students can get the opportunity to cultivate their love for arts and education as many Yalies do every day.

More than half of the Yale Hospitality employees identify as Black or African American.

Credits:

Cover photograph by Natalie Kainz.