Bridging the age gap, one bowl at a time

Ban Righ Centre offers female students of all ages a place for learning, support and a bowl of hot soup

Students enjoy bowls of soup at the Ban Righ Centre’s free lunch program on Thursday. The program runs every weekday starting at 11:30 a.m.
Students enjoy bowls of soup at the Ban Righ Centre’s free lunch program on Thursday. The program runs every weekday starting at 11:30 a.m.

Despite its proximity to other residences and lecture halls, the brown exterior of the Ban Righ Centre on Bader Lane is a mystery to most students.

But walk in during lunch time and you’ll discover the smell of hot soup and the sounds of female students engaged in lively conversation in the homey building’s spacious living room during their free lunch program, which starts at 11:30 every weekday morning.

The program has Queen’s students working behind the scenes, wearing chef’s hats and preparing soup for their older peers.

“I never thought I would have any reason to come here,” said Sarah McAuley, Sci ’13. “I don’t really see any [mature students] in any of my classes. I’m in Engineering, and I haven’t seen any around.”

The Centre was founded in 1974 by female Queen’s graduates with the accumulated savings from the operation of women’s residences on campus. The Centre aims to assist “women of all ages, especially those who are returning to university after a time away, to continue formal or informal education.”

In February 2006, the Centre received the funding it had been promised by the AMS in July 2005 after the cancellation of the After-Hours Childcare service (AHC).

The Centre received $7,797 that had been gathered from an opt-outable student fee for the AHC, plus accrued interest.

This term, McAuley and her Gordon 1 floormates have gotten used to starting their weeks off making soup. The program has about 400 students registered on its e-mail list serve. Queen’s has more than 1,600 female students over the age of 30.

“We make all different kinds, usually blended soups, so you don’t get the last people getting just broth,” said Claire Rinne, Kin ’13. “We don’t get to cook because we’re in res and I enjoy doing that.”

Rinne typically has class when the lunch program starts at 11:30, but said she has already developed a connection with her older peers.

“I feel like whenever I see a mature student, they always kind of look a little bit ostracized because they’re in this giant room full of 18-year-olds. Especially if they have kids with them—it would be really, really hard to do that and be in university full-time, so it’s nice that they have a place to come to.”

Gordon 1 residence don Supriya Singh, ArtSci ’10, said she volunteered her 11-person mostly-female floor to participate in the program to respond to the Centre’s need for cooks on Monday mornings, as their usual paid work-study employee has class on Monday mornings.

“Claire Hooker, she’s one of the full-time staff at residence life, she sent out an e-mail to all the residence dons and asked if any of the dons were interested in doing a community service learning project,” she said. “They took on this project and they were really gung-ho about helping out and they wanted to know more about the Centre. All of us pass this building everyday and who actually stops to find out what it is and what it’s all about?”

Singh said she felt it would be a good opportunity to bridge the generation gap between first years and the mature students who frequent the centre.

“In labs, some people may say, ‘Oh I don’t want to be partners with them,’ or if they bring their kids to class and people are complaining, have you ever thought about what it’s like for them?” she said. “Imagine how much courage it takes to come back to school. It’s something that should inspire us and not something that should divide us.”

Work-study student Suki Lam, ArtSci ’10, was hired as the Centre’s regular lunch helper last September.

“My job is not just making soup. I have to communicate with people because we always have new students coming. I have to talk to them and help them,” she said. “I think it’s a good atmosphere here. People are really nice.”

Lam said she works two and a half hours a day preparing each meal and is given the freedom to choose what kind of homemade soup she makes.

“I think my favourite type of soup to make is the Chinese tofu soup,” she said. “People like it.”

Lam said the part-time job has allowed her to get to know women she wouldn’t normally talk to in class.

“I have classes with them, but I don’t really talk to them because there’s a generation gap—that’s why we really don’t have common topics. I’m learning to communicate with them and know more about them and their families.”

Lunch program regular Heather Rathwell, ArtSci ’10, said she started going to the Centre for lunch when she first enrolled at Queen’s six years ago.

“It means you can save money. You can come here and get some real food, tea and company. You can just de-stress,” she said. “When you’re sitting in lectures and everyone starts talking about their weekends or they’re talking about their plans for reading week … I have never gone away for reading week—never. There’s no thought of even going away for reading week, let alone affording to.”

Rathwell, who has teenage children and a husband in the military stationed at Valcartier military base in Quebec City, said the Centre provides a much-needed home for her at Queen’s.

“I think I would have dropped out that first year if it wasn’t for this place. I had never been alone in a big crowd before. If there was an empty seat in a lecture theatre of 500, it would be beside me. People didn’t know who I was, they didn’t know if I was a professor. It was really lonely,” she said. “It’s not like you have anything in common with them. You’re not living in residence; you’re probably not going to go out a party with them. … I would try and [say hello] and they would look at me like I had two heads.”

Rathwell said an academic advisor first directed her to the Ban Righ Centre.

“I wasn’t told about it. I started out as a first year Arts and Science student going to SOAR, where you had to go with your parents and sign up for course and stuff. My husband was going to come and be my ‘parent’ and he ended up having to work, so he couldn’t, and I felt really alone. I then signed up for the non-residents’ tour of campus and I was asked what my child was taking because they thought I was a parent,” she said. “I said ‘No, I’m a student.’ Then, we walked right by this place and they didn’t say anything about it.”

Over a bowl of lentil soup, new lunch program regular Charlene Chang, MIR ’11, said she found out about the lunch program through a Google search and enjoys the other services the Centre offers.

In addition to a bi-weekly speakers series, the Centre offers bursaries and awards to mature students. Its facilities include a lending library, computer lab, and a space for nursing and caring for children.

“I come here for the talks sometimes. They have interesting topics such as stress relief, meditation. They happen during lunch, which is convenient for a lot of other people who have jobs,” she said. “It’s very refreshing to see the regulars. It’s nice to share with other women in similar circumstances. It’s a good network of support to know that you’re not the only mature female student sometimes.”

Student Advisor Gamila Abdalla said she first discovered the lunch program when she was enrolled as a mature student in the mid-1990s.

“This has been going on for as long as I’ve been going to the Ban Righ Centre. I was a mature student myself and I came back to school in 1994 and the soup was going on for years before that,” she said.

Abdalla said the program’s funding comes from the Centre’s yearly operating budget.

“For non-students, it’s by donation. People who come to our speaker series program who aren’t students will come and stay for lunch and donate to the centre, so that’s really helpful,” she said. “We’ve never had issues to fund this program, actually. We’ve been doing good at maintaining it.”

Abdalla said for the last two years the Centre has received free bread from Bread and Butter Bakery.

“It’s really good for us because bread was expensive and it’s good quality bread. When they give it to us, it’s fresh out of the oven.”

Abdalla said each year the Centre utilizes different resources to prepare its lunches.

“Usually we hire work-study students in the spring and fall,” she said. “We don’t know who’ll be making the food over the summer. We don’t have the SWEP program anymore, so we won’t have a student [this year].”

Abdalla said she’s grateful for the support she’s received from the residence community.

“We’re hoping this will continue. We have had a hard time making that connection with younger students living in residence in the past and we were trying to figure out how to do that. That’s where the idea came from,” she said. “We wanted to make that connection between mature students and younger students.”

Abdalla said younger students are welcome to participate in the Centre’s programs.

“We do have some younger students who come. Whenever we tell younger students who inquire about what we do here we say, ‘You’re welcome to come to the Centre and use all the facilities and have soup every day.’”

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