An Interview With New HDH Executive Director Hemlata Jhaveri

HDH Executive Director Jhaveri stands with HDH Exemplary Student Employee of the Year, Janelle Eberhard. Photo courtesy of Hemlata Jhaveri.

On May 30, The Triton interviewed Housing Dining Hospitality (HDH) Executive Director Hemlata Jhaveri. Jhaveri previously was the Executive Director of Housing and Dining at the University of Texas, Austin (UT Austin). She came to UC San Diego in mid-April, inheriting a series of issues with housing and dining quality that started under the direction of her predecessor Mark Cunningham.

Jhaveri discussed student issues such as food quality, housing arrangements, and labor. Throughout her interview, she emphasized her focus on making sure students have a voice and that their concerns are addressed.

Tell us a little bit about yourself.

I grew up in India; I was the first in my family to go to college. I completed my bachelor’s in English Literature in India, and then I was fortunate to go to Illinois State University in Bloomington for a doctorate in English Literature. I started on the international student floor, [where] I felt disconnected from the community, since all I was doing was research and writing. I had an opportunity to be a RA [residential assistant] for about four weeks. It sounded like a great opportunity, so I said yes. And I’d say that’s probably where my journey in housing started.

I enjoyed [the experience] so much that I actually ended up getting an MBA instead. I was the Director of Reslife [at the University of Texas in Austin] for four years and then I became the Director of Business Services. When the Executive Director of Housing and Dining announced his retirement, I was fortunate to have been offered that position.

I was three years into that role when the position here at UC San Diego came up, and it was really exciting … [to see] the transformation this campus is going through—the physical, but also the cultural. The mission statement and the vision statement talk about being student-centered. Of course, my entire career has been working with students, [so] it felt like a good match.

UCSD has a lot of housing and food insecurity. How do you plan on addressing that?

[Housing and food insecurity] is a national dilemma. It’s not one particular need—it’s figuring out what an individual student needs, then trying to figure out: What do we do as a campus? I’m looking forward to being more engaged with our advisory board and really any student that wants to come talk to me. Feedback we’ve received from the [HDH forum on May 22] was that the students really appreciated me being present. That’s what’s important to me: to be present, to be visible, and making sure that we’re listening to students and then following up with action. It’s critical. I was able to work with our team before the second forum to say: Okay, well, we have the feedback, now let’s talk about what we have done with the feedback so we can go back and share with the students…so they really feel it’s a dialogue and it’s a two-way street. 

There’s been a lot of complaints about HDH food quality. What do you know about that situation, and how is it getting addressed?

Something I shared at the forum was that we are looking for a new Director of Dining and [we] have students on the search committee. So I have a grad student, undergraduate student, and a student from the Student Sustainability Collective. The three finalists that we bring to campus…our Undergraduate Advisory Board and the Graduate Advisory Board will have time to ask them questions directly, because we really want to make sure we are bringing a student-centered dining director here.

What about the recipes?

Our nutritionists and chefs are looking at all of our 3,000 recipes. All of them will be reviewed before fall to [find] the items that shouldn’t be on the menu, that are not healthy.

Many vegan and vegetarian students feel unrepresented by HDH since there is only one dining hall, Roots. What’s your view on that?

So actually you can share with your readership [that] starting in the fall, every location will offer you vegetarian option[s]. Again, personally, being a vegetarian, I’m very sensitive to that. I’m also making sure that there is no cross-contamination, that vegetarian meals are truly vegetarian.

There’s traditionally been a fairly antagonistic relationship between HDH and labor. Considering the recent strike, what is your approach to managing custodial staff and being transparent with staff?

It’s important that I am available and visible for every single level of our organization. Something that I did at UT Austin that did really well was I created a space…called “Conversations with Hemlata,” and anyone and everyone in the department was welcome to come and spend an hour with me.

Once we come back in Fall [Quarter], I plan to do the same here, to give direct access to [anyone] to share what’s on their mind. I would say some of the changes of programs that we tried at Austin came directly from staff, and they were exciting. It’s really important for me to not make assumptions, but to learn directly from our students and staff.

What is your philosophy in interacting with RAs yourself? And how does that play into how you will approach it here?

Our RAs do a tremendous job in helping students transition to college. At UT Austin I would meet with the RA leadership regularly to hear about their experiences. If there was a program that they wanted to do, but didn’t have the resources…[I would focus on] finding the resources for them, [and] making sure the training is relevant because things change, climates change, environments change.

I think it’s really important for the RAs to enjoy the position because it does put a lot of strain on [them], with the 2:00 a.m. and 3:00 a.m. knocks on their door. We want them to be able to balance being a student and an RA, which is a fairly challenging position. I look forward to seeing if there are ways that we can better support them.

What’s your philosophy on the LLCs (Living-Learning Communities) on campus? Do you think that they’re working well? On that note, what’s your philosophy on housing that is not gendered?

Sure. So I know…[LLCs] tend to offer the same support when it comes to student engagement and student connectedness to campus. I have seen great success with LLCs, but it takes time to develop those relationships. It’s something I would be very interested in looking at…holistically and see what other campuses are doing. I truly believe in not reinventing the wheel. Let’s learn from what’s there, let’s do some benchmarking, and then bring all that information to the advisory board [and UCSD].

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Ethan Coston is an Assistant News Editor for The Triton. You can follow him @Ethan4Books