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Yen Nguyen: The face of Berkshire Dining Commons

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Yen Nguyen: The face of Berkshire Dining Commons


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By Ilana Gensler

Yen Nguyen is the centerpiece of the Berkshire Dining Commons. She sits tall and proud in her white uniform with her shiny name tag, glistening in the few rays of sun that streak into the cafeteria. Nguyen is a 70-year-old mother to ten children with a playful disposition and a reputation for cracking jokes. She’s a short woman who walks quickly and does her job at a fast pace. Her lips are always tilted upward in a smile, which scrunch her sparkling eyes and form crow’s feet at the sides of her face. Her chef hat sits atop her well-styled, chestnut-brown hair. Her fingernails are typically painted in a vibrant red shade. In a soft and high-pitched voice, Nguyen is frequently giggling.

This December marks Nguyen’s 23rd year working at Berk and concludes her time here. At the end of this semester, Nguyen’s retirement will affect both the staff and the student body. Students have shown their appreciation for Nguyen in many forms ranging from a fan-based Facebook page titled, “Why We Love Yen” to showering her with attention, presents, cards and hugs. Others tend to chat about the way she makes them feel special.

“The students are the best part of the job,” said Nguyen. “I get so much attention all the workers say they’re jealous of me and wish they could be cashier.” She explained she’s surprised year after year by the number of “happy birthday’s” she receives every April ninth from all the students, which is partly the result of Ryan Pipczynski, the manager of Berk.

“Yen gets a kick out of anytime it’s her birthday,” said Pipczynski as he reminisced about a time he pulled a practical prank on Nguyen. “I put a sign on the door telling everyone to wish Yen a happy birthday when they walked in. She could hardly believe how all these strangers knew the significance of the date! I finally let her in on the secret and told her about the note…she was so overwhelmed.”

“She makes an effort to greet every person as they come in…she’s just one of those people you can’t help but smile at when you see her,” junior journalism major Kerry O’Connor said of Yen.

“I am eternally grateful for Yen,” said Pipczynski. “She truly is the matriarch of this area of Campus. At Berkshire we carve out a niche for ourselves, mine is the bow-tie, Yen’s is her smile and welcoming squeeze on the shoulder.”

Out of all her jobs, Nguyen couldn’t stop raving about Berk as she explained all the memories she’ll have of, “students treating me so well.” Nguyen’s first American employment occurred immediately after her arrival in 1990 and was with Stop and Shop where she worked as a cashier for 18 years.

Nguyen’s initial job at Stop and Shop allowed her to improve her English which was a good transition to working at Berk. Pipczynski mentioned that “many of the workers coming from different countries run into the obstacle of the language barrier, but we get through it.”

Nguyen has achieved much more than conquering the language barrier, she is “the face of Berk,” said Pipczynski.

The tale of Nguyen’s migration resonates with many of the workers at Berk to this day, and will continue to hold a place in their memory after she retires in two months. Nguyen and her husband decided to take on an entirely new life when they moved from Vietnam to the United States in 1990. A few years later, Nguyen’s husband published a book in which he discussed his struggles mastering English and shared his adventure of entering a new country where he has now lived for 20 years with his 10 children. The experiences narrated in the book struck members of the staff.

Coworker, Laty Chhuon, came to Berk from Cambodia as a fluent speaker of Khmer but knew very little English. Ever since day one she and Nguyen have hit it off. “We love each other,” she said. Their friendship spilled out from the work environment and into the real world, “I went to her anniversary and brought my kids to her house when her daughter had a graduation party.”

When asked how Nguyen contributes in the work environment, Chhuon explained their system of teamwork.

“Everyone helps each other out so things can run smoothly,” said Chhuon. “When I first started working I didn’t understand the system, so she helped me navigate. Sometimes something would confuse her and I’d come over and try to help.”

Chhuon places high importance on liking her job. “When you’re working, you have to enjoy it,” said Chhuon. “After all, we spend our whole lives working!” Chhuon is greatful to have become such close friends with Nguyen, “she brightens my shift with all her jokes,” said Chhuon. “We know life in our countries were harder than life here in America so we have a classic joke where we pretend our arms are too sore from swiping in all the students… my arm is sore ow my arm is sore! But we’re only kidding to make the shift more fun.”

Currently, Nguyen’s husband has taken multiple overnight visits to the hospital. His exact illness has been kept private. The students have been very supportive, “they send me cards and give me hugs,” said Nguyen. In these trying times Nguyen has taken off many days from work and has posted a note on Facebook in which she thanked everyone. “It is so comforting to have colleagues and friends such as you. I really appreciate it,” said Nguyen. She closed the letter adding, “I miss you and love you all very much. UMass students are the best.” Yen paused for a moment and said with amazement, “21,000 students read my note. Oh my god I couldn’t believe it!”

Reflecting on her time here at the University Of Massachusetts Amherst, Nguyen said, “My husband has been retired for a while and wants to spend time with me. I have ten children and many grandchildren who want me home. What else am I supposed to do?”

Pipczynski dreads the day she leaves. “It’s really going to suck,” he said. Nguyen was unable to list any downsides to working at Berk after all these years, the only negative factor being that she’s going to “miss it so much.”

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Yen Nguyen: The face of Berkshire Dining Commons