I was a few minutes late, so by the time I arrived at the Villard Room, which had been transformed into a color-block, gala-worthy venue, the place was overflowing with excitement. On March 24, The Vassar Haiti Project (VHP), the Women’s Center and the Office of International Services hosted “She Is,” an event packed with speeches, musical performances, art raffles, video presentations and socializing, with food catered by Twisted Soul, in honor of the women of Vassar’s food service.
“Organizing it has been a whirlwind. It’s been absolutely amazing. In the beginning stages, in thinking of who to honor, we were thinking of people in the Vassar community, women in the Vassar community, who have really contributed to making [Vassar] feel like home,” Co-President of VHP Laury Senecal ’23, shared. Members of the VHP decided to honor the women of dining services because their contributions are not often recognized.“We wanted to create a special space for them to feel appreciated and acknowledged,” Senecal explained. Brielle Irahoza ’24, a member of VHP, commented: “We feel like we should really be grateful for [the women of the dining services], but it’s so hard to say ‘Thank you all’ in a tangible way. So I think [this event] was great.”
I spoke with Lila Meade, who co-founded VHP twenty years ago, about the creation of the “She Is” event. “We started [VHP] after 9/11. We just wanted to make some difference in the world. We never had any idea it would be this,” she gushed. “I love Vassar Haiti Project. It’s very loving. It’s a lot of hard work, but we really take care of each other.”
Guests of “She Is” were encouraged to mingle at brightly clothed tables, each with Haitian sculpture centerpieces. At an orange table near the front podium, I met Zerina Naci, who primarily works at the Grill in the Deece. Naci started working at the Retreat nine years ago, where she happily engaged with hundreds of students on a daily basis. As she transitioned from Retreat to the Grill, her fondness for Vassar only grew. “Working in the Deece is not only work, it’s fun. I can’t wait to come to work and see you guys,” she said. She continued, “It was a very great opportunity for me and also an experience because I got to work with students. That’s the most important thing–I love working with [them].”
“She Is” was centered around the Haitian phrase “poto mitan.” Siyi Wang ’22, Vice President of the Women’s Initiative at VHP, began her speech explaining how “poto mitan” describes women as the backbone of society. She shared that she stayed on campus for winter break, devastated to spend Christmas away from home; but she was touched by the amount of care and planning that went into each and every Christmas meal prepared for the students still on campus, care overwhelmingly credited to women. “[We] made sure that all the women staff who wanted to join us had at least half an hour to an hour and come here and have a meal and enjoy being celebrated,” she explained.
Food service faced extreme challenges in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, but the women of Vassar’s dining services persevered with their incredible effort and reliability. As President Bradley remarked: “I recognize how incredibly gifted and flexible you have been. In this time since we’ve had COVID, you have had to serve meals, like, upside-down. Outside. Inside. Longer hours. Off hours. New meals. New labels. With masks, without masks…Our students needed you so much. I really want to thank you for that.”
With these adversities in mind, VHP hosted a lovely celebration of the women of Vassar’s dining services. Co-President of VHP Alice Fan ’22 performed two gorgeous piano pieces, Franz Liszt’s “Un Sospiro” and Mozart’s “Sonata No. 5 in C minor.” Fan has a correlate in musical performance and both pieces are part of her senior recital. As she performed, the room fell into an awed silence. “I chose the most upbeat ones,” she explained of her song selection.
Then there was the art raffle–three Haitian art pieces were up for grabs, including a metallic sculpture spelling out the word “family,” a beautiful painted portrait and two ceramic animals. While we sat in anticipation, the winners were drawn at random, of which included Rkia Ikhourtirn, Albina Moni and Tannika Johnson. Each member of the dining staff was also given a goody bag, stuffed with a VHP mug and an iron sculpture of a woman handcrafted by Haitian artisans, wrapped in pink tissue paper.
Many members of the dining staff used “She Is” as a space to share their stories. Betsy Vespe, one of the cashiers in the Deece, was one of the speakers. “All the women that I work with just laugh all day long. There’s, you know, those other moments—but the laughs are what we live for…We have our own family here.” Vespe has been a part of the Vassar family for thirty-five years.
Head Chef Alyssa Rodriguez detailed her passion for cooking: “I know many of you may not recognize my face, but I know you recognize my food. My hopes are that my food can give you a hug when you are sad, stressed, or even celebrating.” She continued: “Food is a way to hold space for one another, or better yet, to create space for one another. In a world where everything can seem so chaotic…having a meal is the one time of day that we can put everything aside and truly connect with one another.”
To all of the women who keep Vassar College grounded and lively: Happy Women’s History Month. On behalf of every student, we are grateful for you.