There are very few things in the Illinois Street Residence Halls kitchen that Rhonda Winston doesn't have her hand in.
To rephrase, Winston, a kitchen helper since 2001, is an integral part of every dish served to the students of ISRH.
Though it takes a full staff of employees and student workers to make each meal, Winston takes personal ownership of every morsel that leaves the kitchen.
"I'm involved in everything," she said, which includes food and salad bar preparation, and making sure food stations are ready when student workers arrive. "It's a matter of doing one thing and then moving on to the next. I never really stop, because there are so many things to do."
She said student appetites rule the menu and the kitchen staff does everything it can to ensure their young customers – who have a world of different tastes – are satisfied.
"Our job is to cater to them," she said.
She said she does take food complaints somewhat personally and works hard to ensure there are as many happy eaters as possible. She encourages students with complaints about the food to take the time to fill out a card or an online form because they will be taken seriously.
"A lot of the complaints are about having the same things from day to day, which we understand," she said. "I wouldn't want to eat chicken every day, either. When we get a complaint, we do our best to solve the problem."
Winston also takes a personal interest in the students who work in her kitchen.
"For some of these kids, it's their first time away from home," she said. "And for some of them, this is their first real job. You have to be patient with them."
She said she's become a mentor and friend to some of the students who have worked there and still maintains contact with some of them.
"I really enjoy the kids," she said. "You get to know them really well, you get attached to them, and then after a few years, they leave. You really hate to see them go, but you wish the best for them."
She said not every student is cut out to work while attending college. For those students struggling with the balance, she always advises them to choose school first.
"I tell them, 'You're not here to work, you're here to go to school,’" she said. "If they're having problems, they know they can come to me or anybody else in the kitchen."
Winston said food service has changed significantly since she started working at ISRH.
For one, the fare is healthier than it used to be. And, meal planners use direct student input to offer different foods, many of them ethnically based. She said one of the most popular nights is Wednesday, which is Asia night. Latin food is served on Mondays.
"They do a lot of testing over the summer to see what we're going to have here," she said. "We used to have a lot of fruit salads and things like that; now we're more likely to serve something like couscous."
Winston ended up in the Champaign area through a circuitous route that began with her birth in Chicago. Her dad was in the Air Force, and, at 12, she begged her mom to allow her to move in with him and his family, who were stationed in Panama City.
She said the move was difficult but exciting, as Panama was in the midst of turmoil over the United States extradition of Manuel Noriega. Her father lived in the heart of the city, not on base, which made the experience that much more vivid.
"It was hard getting used to being in a military family," she said.
She said she also missed her mother and at times regretted the move.
“Back then I thought I knew everything, and I had to make a lot of adjustments,” she said. “but mostly I loved it there.” Remembering the beaches and the always-warm weather, "There are times I wish I could go back," she said.
When she was 15, Winston's father was transferred to Rantoul Air Force Base (declining a post in Albuquerque, New Mexico), and she has lived in the area ever since.
In 1989, she started managing a McDonald's that was then on Green Street. Before that, she had worked in retail.
"Campus has certainly changed a lot since then," she said. "One of the things I like about my job now is I don't have to make schedules or deal with money."
Winston, who has two sons, ages 21 and 20, works through the summer with few days off. The schedule gets tighter when she needs to cover for a recovering co-worker, but she gets ample time off during the various student holiday breaks. She said she uses that time for short trips, but wishes she could travel farther and more often.
"That takes money," she said, noting many of her trips are to visit friends and family in Chicago. "There are just so many things to do there, it's amazing."