Listen to my audio story here.
Varsity Room serves breakfast, lunch and dinner to varsity athletic teams at the University of Illinois. 250 athletes make their way over to the small cafeteria in the southeast end zone of Memorial Stadium for each meal.
Behind the free food, buffet lines, and serving stations is a dedicated staff that makes the student-athlete cafeteria run day-in and day-out.
Joni Johnson has worked at Varsity Room for 17 years. She starts her day at 6 A.M. and leaves by 2:30. Johnson prepares fruit water, salads and sandwiches before she spends the rest of her time in the dining room making sure student-athletes get the food they need.
Johnson is on her feet for most of the day, but she enjoys her work so much she says it never feels stressful. Johnson loves interacting with the student-athletes.
“Oh I love my job. I’m serious, it’s so fun,” Johnson said. “You wouldn’t believe the athletes that we see come and go through here.”
Johnson wasn’t always able to spend time with the student-athletes. She first started cleaning and putting away orders behind-the-scenes. When the catering company at Varsity Room changed three years ago, Johnson took on a different role.
“As the years came and Sodexo came on in, and the three-meal-a-day came on in, I worked in the dining room, and I like that best,” Johnson said. “I like being out with the students.”
Junior Illini golfer, Pailin Ruttanasupagid, says Varsity Room is convenient for student-athletes who are busy. While she often grabs her food to go and doesn’t have time to chat, she appreciates the Varsity Room staff.
“They do the same thing everyday, and it might get boring for them, but we never see that because they are always smiling and always
making us happy,” Ruttanasupagid said.
University of Illinois Sports Nutritionist, Christina Weston, hopes the student-athletes appreciate the hard work that is put into each meal.
Weston believes Varsity Room allows student-athletes to get proper nutrition and spend quality time with different teams.
“To be the best, you have to have the best, and being able to come together and have – its kind of like a big family meal – I think that’s really important,” Weston said.
Varsity Room will be moved to a new athletic facility in 2020 where staff members like Joni Johnson will continue to serve big family meals for years come.
As a student-athlete, I feel so privileged to eat every meal at Varsity Room. Ever since I came in as a freshman, I have wanted to do a story on this student-athlete cafeteria. Oftentimes, I come and go as I please, and I’m in such a rush that I’m not able to interact with the amazing staff that puts a meal on the table for me everyday. Being a student-athlete is difficult. My schedule is always busy, but one thing I can always count on is having a nice, home-cooked meal from Varsity Room. Food is special because it brings people together in a unique way. And, in a room full of athletes, EVERYBODY loves food.
When I saw there was an opportunity to do a story on Varsity Room, I did not hold back. I could finally shine a light on the staff members who work so hard to fuel us properly.
Enter: Joni Johnson. Ms. Johnson was so kind. While I have seen her around, I’ve never had the opportunity to sit down and talk with her. I’m so glad I did. Her quiet, humble demeanor will forever leave an impact on me as not only a student-athlete, but as a journalist, too. I’ve conducted emotional interviews before, but Ms. Johnson was very teary-eyed from the beginning, to the point where she started crying halfway through our interview. But, her tears were not sad. Her tears were out of gratitude. Her tears were happy. Ms. Johnson does not have a glamorous job. She mops floors, wakes up at the crack of dawn, and cuts vegetables each day. But, she absolutely loves what she does, and her passion shined brightly in those 10 minutes. She is grateful to work at Varsity Room, and this became very apparent to me as I continued to interview her.
This was my first time witnessing the emotional impact my stories can have on people as a journalist. I simply asked Ms. Johnson her favorite part of her job, and that question triggered a wide range of emotions, something that I was able to capture in telling her story. I knew this was special, and I was so thankful for our short time together.
Overall, I’m happy with this audio journalism story. Looking back, I wish I was able to get more natural sound in the kitchen. My natural sound was interesting, however, it could have been more specific to my script. Additionally, I would have loved to include another student-athlete’s perspective. While there was a time limit on this project, I believe that could have added an important element and perspective to my story.
When I originally showed Professor Collins my work, we both agreed I needed to make my narration more concise and conversational. I was able to cut almost 30 seconds out of my script, and I’m glad I did. I think it is important to recognize as a journalist when to let the subjects of the story narrate the piece themselves. My voice wasn’t the one that mattered as much this time…and that’s okay.
Another week down and another story in the books!