The day I moved into my dorm and my family left me, I felt completely and utterly alone. My roommate didn’t move in until the next day, and I had just been abandoned by the people I had grown up with. It was me against the world, and the feeling followed me around everywhere I went.
This feeling only built up with the revelation that I would have to eat, in public, all alone, for the first time in my life.
Of all the college experiences I had mentally prepared for, this wasn’t one of them. As I walked down the steps into the Markley dining hall, I could already feel that familiar gnawing feeling at the bottom of my stomach. The room was swarming with people. With every step, I became more aware of my existence: My hair was frizzy, my outfit weird, I was sweaty. Every tripped step or awkward movement around the crammed tables sent a surge of anxiety through me that was enough to tighten my chest and make me shut my eyes.
There were so many people, so many eyes, so many things to focus on. I grabbed food, sat at a table — my table for one — and hoped I would fade into the background. What I ate, I couldn’t tell you. I was no longer hungry. I ate blindly and ran.
In that moment, I felt so guilty. This is supposed to be one of the most pivotal moments of my life, and I was too afraid to eat around other people? To my disappointment, my dining hall-phobia didn’t improve as the semester progressed. When I could eat with someone else, I would. But whenever I had to eat alone I was hyper aware of my existence and terrified to move, let alone eat.
I suffered in silence for weeks. Going to dining halls became a pointless venture. I was barely able to eat anyway, so I opted for anything I could make in the microwave — ramen, soup or leftovers.
In short, I spent a lot of money. Every day I thanked myself for saving up over the summer, because otherwise, I’d be going hungry. Yet I never stopped feeling guilty; my parents were putting their own money toward my dining hall meal plan, and my seemingly-irrational fear was preventing me from using it. Here at the University of Michigan, dorm residents are required to select one of these dining plans and can’t opt out for a monthly allowance. If I’d been given the choice, I would’ve told my parents to just give me that allowance instead.
While I was privileged enough to accommodate my phobia, I couldn’t help but think about my other peers who might not have that option. I was lucky to have some spending money to buy myself snacks and food between my weekly dining hall visits, but what if I didn’t? What if I was here on scholarship, or need-based financial aid, and my only viable option was to eat in the dining halls when I felt that I couldn’t?
These thoughts about inaccessibility had me concerned, but as I assumed I was alone in this feeling, I didn’t think much further on it.
The first time I realized my dining hall-phobia was not entirely rare was a dreary winter morning in English 140, when we were discussing inaccessibility on campus. I volunteered how I found it hard to eat in dining halls, as they had the tendency to make me anxious. I was surprised when nearly the entire class agreed; almost every person had an experience in a dining hall that had made them feel uncomfortable, or kept them from eating.
So how big of an issue is this?
When I decided to write this piece and look for people to talk to, I was overwhelmed by the sheer amount of responses I received. While not all students were ready to be interviewed, countless fellow dining hall-phobes expressed their discontent with eating in the erratic environment.
LSA sophomore Alex Ngyuen talked to me about his time spent in the dining halls, but most importantly, about what he had been doing to avoid eating in them entirely.
“I’ve kind of been accustomed to eating a huge breakfast. There are people there, but it’s not as crowded around nine o’clock,” Ngyuen said, “so I’ll just do that, skip lunch. If I’m hungry I’ll eat like a granola bar in my room or something, or I just won’t eat at all, just wait till dinner.”
This particular moment in my conversation with Ngyuen struck me because I had been doing the same thing. And what did I do when I couldn’t? Well, me and Ngyuen shared that, too.
“I would either just not eat, or I would order a lot of UberEats,” Ngyuen said, “I think I’m actually at the top level of like Uber loyalty.”
Having racked up many rewards points myself, I couldn’t help but relate to Ngyuen’s story. The more I looked, the more I found that other people were having the same problem. I even found that I wasn’t alone in precisely what made me so anxious, as LSA sophomore Madyson Oster told me she had been feeling the exact same way.
“There was nowhere you could go where there wasn’t a group of people watching,” Oster said. “[Dining halls were] very unfamiliar territory coming from such a rural area.”
When talking about these feelings, I felt frustrated. What could be done about it? The University’s dining hall packages were a mandatory purchase, and eating out every day was wholly impractical. Moreover, it is infeasible to have to purposefully schedule time for eating in times of low capacity in the hall.
But I wasn’t satisfied with this pseudo-conclusion.
Some dining plans come with included dining dollars, an alternative form of money that allows students to purchase food from a set list of vendors and eat it where they like. If the University provided plans with more dining dollars, or expanded their ability to purchase food items across campus, I would have more options and possibly be better able to find more comfortable spaces to eat.
Aside from this change, a reassessment of the current dining experience could reveal many different solutions. A simple option includes greater access to take-out boxes. A more radical possibility would include secluded areas for eating within dining halls — perhaps an option to reserve an eating room, like they do with private campus study rooms.
These ideas didn’t go without support among students. Oster told me that she would like “anywhere less crowded and way less loud and stimulating,” and my conversation with Ngyuen pointed out how these alternative plans might actually be of mutual benefit to both dining halls and the diners who frequent them.
“It’d be nice if we could use our swipes as dining dollars,” Ngyuen said. “It would be a very good alternative for crowd controlling in dining halls.”
Even though these ideas may not extend beyond conversation and interview points, I got excited. I dreamed of future freshmen who would be able to personalize their eating to their individual needs. I thought about my own freshman self, and how comforting it would have been to find a moment of solitude to process the severity of eating your first meal officially moved out of your childhood home.
But, in the end, what I really loved about this project, and about this story, was that I learned I wasn’t alone. I had spent so much time feeling guilty for being unable to handle dining halls like everyone else, that when I found other people who had gone through the same experience, I was overjoyed.
While dining plans and options may not be changing anytime soon, I hope that what I’ve written can help any of you who might be feeling uncomfortable with the dining hall experience. I hope that this can help you speak up about how you feel or ask your friends for help. And even if you don’t feel uncomfortable in dining halls, I hope this piece encourages you to think about those who might, and how you can help.
We all deserve to eat in a place we feel comfortable, and we can all help each other find that place.
Statement Correspondent Riley Hodder can be reached at email@example.com.