The University of Toronto has been deemed one of the best universities, from its ranking as Canada’s top university to its position among the top 30 universities in the world. Students are understandably driven to enroll at U of T due to its success as a university. But who is responsible for students’ success?
Professors are known for supporting students in their academic endeavours. Registrars help students manage their course loads and responsibilities. Yet it’s almost too easy to ignore the vast network of staff members working day and night, whose jobs help build the support networks around the university that students rely on to make the most out of their experiences.
We walk past hundreds of different service workers on campus every day, but we often fail to recognize the lives of those who work behind the scenes to improve students’ lives. Staff members — including custodians, cafeteria staff, and administrative staff — all have stories for those who are willing to listen, stories that extend beyond the superficial glimpses we capture on our way to and from class.
Maureen Lynch and Cei Fuin Wu are only two of the many dedicated workers at U of T. I had the pleasure of meeting them to ask them about their lives and why they are here.
Working at Student Family Housing is far from easy. Tucked in the back of Charles Street, the two apartment buildings house mostly graduate students as residents. They come from about 60 different countries and speak a multitude of different languages. To qualify for family housing, residents must either be living with a spouse or a common-law partner, or have custody of one or two children.
“I’m passionate about people,” said Maureen Lynch, the residence life coordinator at Student Family Housing.
Maureen is responsible for the recreation and community-building programs for all residents. It’s a difficult task, yet she derives a lot of joy from interacting with the kids and the couples. As part of her job, Maureen creates interactive and exciting new programs and events, such as the Women’s Wellness Program, the Great Garden Adventure for kids, yoga programs, kids’ boot camp, and rooftop camping. She has also coordinated visits to sports events, alongside trips to hiking spots and apple orchards.
“I think my job is unique to the university because in the residences, they’re working with undergrads,” she said. “But because I’m here, I work with families.”
Through these many programs, Maureen succeeds in creating a wide sense of community for these diverse families. She said, “I get letters from parents saying, ‘We were so nervous [when] we were coming here. We were so worried because we had two small children. They had the best summer of their life. Maureen, everything you guys do is so much fun.’”
Maureen noted that families socialize and meet new people through these community activities. “I think what happens is it really enriches the student experience,” she said. “Like, you’re not just here going to school. You also create a community because the children get to know each other. The parents get to know each other.”
Maureen not only cares for student families but is also responsible for work-study students. Since they work hand-in-hand toward the development of the community, she creates strong bonds between the students she supervises too. As work-study students come and go, Maureen spoke about the students she’s had and the support she gives them as a supervisor and a mentor.
“When you come here, I really want people to [have] learning goals and set goals for what… they want their work-study experience to be and then follow up,” she said. “And then the other part is, I’m really big on encouraging all of… these students to live big lives. Don’t just do your [bachelor of arts] and be done. Do something that’s exciting.”
“Go do the next big thing in your life.”
Cei Fuin Wu
When I arrived at the New College dining hall one morning, I was struck by a heartfelt scene. The cashier stationed at the entrance of the dining hall greeted a short line of students by name; in turn, she was met with warm smiles and acknowledgements by the students, who greeted her by her name as well.
As a cashier, Cei Fuin Wu — commonly known as Cei — dedicates more than just her time to her job. Working from 6:45 am to 3:15 pm every day, Cei is always at the front desk of the dining hall, greeting students during the day and organizing their packed lunches for class. But beyond this, she considers it her duty to smile every day when she greets them, memorize their names, and care for them like — as she put it — “family.”
“They look like my children,” she said. “Everything I do [is for them to] feel happy.”
Born in Brazil, Cei met her husband there and now lives in Canada with their two children. She’s worked in food services under various different companies and has been at U of T for around 15 years. The New College students themselves are also fond of Cei. In more ways than one, she cares deeply for them and supports the students in her own unique way.
“When they don’t feel happy, I say, ‘What happened with you? You are not happy,’” she said. When they tell her that they need to study a lot, she tells them, “Okay. You relax. Take a nap. Then you go back to study.”
The love and kindness Cei extends to students exceeds all expectations, even earning her the Outstanding Individual Employee Award for her service to the students. Cei said she even had her own “file,” or scrapbook, where she kept the nomination for her award and all the other papers she’s received at the university.
“I always love [my work],” she said. “[This is] my favourite place. Everybody is good.”
She even extended her trademark kindness to me as well. Toward the end of our interview, she looked at me and added, “When you go outside [at] nighttime, be careful, okay? Take care of [yourself]. Take good care.”
Photos by Theo Arbez