KINGSTON, R.I. – Oct. 19, 2023 – Brookside Bistro is abuzz when the school day starts. Student-athletes, commuters and hall residents dart in and out.
Amid all the activity is a petite woman with a big smile on her face, not just looking to serve the rushing students, but stopping to talk to them and see how their day’s going.
Vivien Whitney is part of the team at Dining Service’s Brookside Bistro, a popular spot for students — and even visiting University trustees on campus for board events. The busy bistro runs Sunday through Friday throughout the year and also attracts many visitors to its outdoor space. At 7:30 a.m., it’s the first stop of the day for many.
One of the gems of the University’s newest housing options, Brookside Hall was dedicated in 2020. Many of the students who live there enjoy the camaraderie of the building and starting their day with some positive inspiration from Whitney. They need sustenance before they head to the classroom or athletic field, but Whitney is surely a match for them in energy output.
Sophia Vital (aka “Big Soph,” #15) is in her first year on the Rams women’s basketball team and says she gets a pick-me-up from seeing Whitney daily. “I am super grateful for the kindness Vivien expresses when I purchase something or walk by the Bistro,” she says. “She is always happy and works with such a positive attitude. It makes my day that much better every time I see Vivien.”
Students appreciate the time she takes to check in with them personally. Whitney recalls how challenging it was at the height of the pandemic, with everyone masked. She missed seeing the expressions on students’ faces: “I couldn’t tell if they were happy or sad; that was hard,” she says.
Road to Rhody
Whitney joined URI Dining Services in 1997.
Susan Sahagian, senior food service administrator, started on the same day with her. She says, “Vivien has had the same energy, attitude and commitment since day 1. She’ll do anything asked and is great with the kids. She’s dedicated — Viv gives 100% every day.”
For her part, Whitney appreciated the life balance working at the University offered for her young family and the work environment she found at URI. She started part-time, gradually increasing her hours as her children grew. For many years, the Ram’s Den was the place she called home.
Over the years, Whitney’s connection to students has led her coworkers to advocate for the kind of personal connection she brings to her work, which makes URI students feel as if they are at home, and makes her an exemplary employee and colleague.
In fact, Whitney’s enthusiasm has made her a mini-recruiting machine, enlisting several family members to come to work at URI. Her sister Michelle works in Hope dining hall as a cook’s helper and her brother Rizalito is a housekeeper in Butterfield. One of Whitney’s sons even worked as a cook’s helper and her mother was a URI employee for several years, too.
Whitney’s husband, Paul, is also a longtime University employee and administrator at the bookstore.
The Whitneys came to Rhode Island in 1994, moving here from Florida to be closer to family in New England.
Now their children (Eric ’17 and Ethan ’20) are grown and on their own but Whitney keeps that family feeling going in Brookside, treating the students who come in or work alongside her like her own.
“I love to work with the kids,” Whitney says. “I feel like they’re my kids. They make me happy to see them.”
Like any plugged-in parent, she is attentive to student moods, noticing if a student is talkative or quieter one day. “If a student is grumpy or still waking up, I just try to make them smile,” she says. “There is a lot of stress with school and studying!”
That caring attitude is part of her personality. Whitney wanted to be a nurse when she was growing up in the Philippines but life had other plans. She worked as a group leader in a factory, helping her team meet quotas, working 12-hour days, 70 hours a week. In comparison, the busy 8-hour day at Brookside flies by.
When life and marriage took her to the U.S., she was excited to make the move and fell in love with Rhode Island: “I knew I wanted to stay here. I like the peace and quiet and I love the four seasons.”
Whitney says the Filipino culture she grew up with is very neighbor-oriented and she tries to bring that mindset to her work with students.
Top of the morning
The day starts early for the morning crew. Whitney wakes at 5 a.m. and comes into work for 6 a.m., starting with Shawn Dyer, Brookside’s cook. They make coffee and get the egg-and-cheese sandwiches ready; they’re popular with students.
Whitney doesn’t mind being busy or on her feet all day, or facing a long line out the bistro door.
What is the secret to her energy?
She says it’s her homemade green tea with fresh lemon, though she admits she’s naturally upbeat to begin with. She wants to keep her energy up for the students in line: “They might be stressed or tired. I try to get them to open up, to know that someone is here for them.”
“I want the students to be happy, to do well in school. You never know what is happening in their lives; I think it’s just important to be positive for them” — whether that’s a joke or a quick dance break.
“It’s meaningful to care for the students,” Whitney adds. “They’re just like my kids. They graduate and leave, but I always hope they keep in touch.”