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Durham University News

Comment and opinion

A small secondment in Hatfield College, Durham University

(6 June 2018)

Owen Adams, Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Colleges and Student Experience), reminisces about volunteering in Hatfield College.

While serving as a Commander in the British Army’s Royal School of Artillery, I acquired an in-depth understanding of what were often fiendishly complicated military machines. Stood among the equipment in the kitchen of Durham University’s Hatfield College, I thought my past credentials might predispose me – a newcomer in the world of mass-scale catering and cleaning – with a natural advantage. Not so, I soon learned, faced with a pile of dirty pots, pans, and plates. Unqualified to use the dishwashing machine, I was only allowed to “stack and rack”. 

Earlier this month I spent 14 hours helping out in Hatfield College – one of our ‘Bailey Colleges’, situated opposite the fantastic Assembly Rooms Theatre in Durham City. It was my second short secondment in our Colleges (a few months ago I spent 24 hours in Van Mildert). I began by joining members of the executive committee of Hatfield’s Junior Common Room (JCR – the College’s undergraduate body) for a detailed conversation about College life and its environment. The atmosphere was excited and hopeful. I was struck by their desire to create a genuinely inclusive and harmonious College community.

A debate during dinner was the easy part. After, I joined Hatfield’s Porter, Bob. He carried out his evening security patrol as I listened to him speak openly about life in our community, dealing with student incidents, and the isolation of working alone at night. Like the students I had dined with earlier that evening, he was engaging and welcoming. I enjoyed his company tremendously and am grateful to him for sharing his experiences.

My short secondment continued early – 6.45am – as Norman the chef led me on a tour of Hatfield’s kitchen facilities while his staff prepared breakfast for hordes of hungry students. After helping to set out the morning’s fruit, I joined Susan, Darryl, and Dawn for the lunchtime shift, decanting condiments into a seemingly endless supply of pots, before loading the dishwasher.

As I helped Wendy hoover the corridors of Hatfield’s three-storey Gatehouse accommodation block, its student residents passed me wordlessly – possibly perplexed at this grey-haired man who seemed to be undertaking an apprenticeship with the cleaning team. Speaking with Wendy I was unsettled to hear that there remains a very small selection of students who must be reminded to appreciate our kind and dedicated cleaning staff. Every single member of staff – be they a Porter, Professor, or Provost – makes a vital contribution to our University community, and this should be respected and valued by all.

One person I particularly respect and value is Katie, Hatfield’s multi-talented receptionist – constantly juggling five different tasks at the same time, without breaking a sweat, and all the while telling me how she “loves working in College”. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t envious of her Octopus-like ability to multitask.

While I may have left Wendy to re-hoover the spots I missed, what she, Katie, Bob, and the rest of Hatfield’s staff left me with was a strong sense of their loyalty to our University community and their longing to do the best for our students. These experiences – Van Mildert, Hatfield – help to keep me connected with the reality of College life. More than that, they remind me of the committed, wonderful, and welcoming people we have here – working hard in what can be a challenging environment. I just hope I didn’t give anyone food poisoning.