The smell of pancakes and sizzling omelettes wafts through the door of Allison Dining Hall each morning. Students scan their Wildcards upon entering, and as they do, the voice of Mary Flemming – known as Ms. Mary – greets them loud and clear: “Good morning, Sunshine. Thank you for joining us today.”

Ms. Mary has worked in customer service for most of her career. Prior to working at Northwestern, the Chicago native was a general manager at a store. She began working on campus in 2020, starting at Sargent Dining Hall before joining the Allison team in 2021. She also works at the Trienens Performance Center, keeping the space clean so student athletes can train. Between these two jobs, she typically works 16- to 18-hour shifts five days a week.

Students told NBN that Ms. Mary’s positive attitude and warm welcomes are her slayest traits. The women’s basketball team also recently honored her during Black History Month in February. We chatted with Ms. Mary about how she continues to slay through her busy days.

What is your day-to-day like?

Every day is different. Today I'm working the floor. I work in a dish room if I’m needed. I give breaks to cashiering. I go over in kosher to help pass food out over there as well. I prep if they need me to cut anything for them. I do a lot of everything as opposed to just doing one thing. I'm one of them people, I get a little bored.

How would you describe your relationship with NU students?

I think I'm relatable because I have an excellent rapport with both my son and daughter, so that's why I'm able to laugh and talk with you guys. Even though I'm at work, I'm really at this home away from home, and I'm gonna treat you how I treat my kids – with love. I know a lot of you guys are from out of town, and my number one thing is making you feel welcome in a strange place.

How are you so energetic while working so many hours?

It's the grace of God that gives me the energy to do it, because as long as it's positive, I can show up for you guys. These are not jobs for me because I enjoy being nice and kind to people, giving you a good experience every day. When you go to places to eat, that's how you should always be treated: with respect.

What made you quit your old job and come work at Northwestern?

The higher you climb up the ladder, the more that they don't want you to deal with people. It made me not want to partake in it. I just asked God, “When I go to work tomorrow, I'm just gonna quit right there on the spot.” I had no plan, but I know it was time for me to do something else, because it felt like my spirit was dying.

You went to college at Mississippi Valley State University. What kind of influence did that have on you?

The hospitality down there is the best. You can be walking and a car drives past, they blow the horn, “Hey, how you doing?” When I came back to Chicago, I'd be standing at the bus stop. I’d say, “Hello.” People looking at me like, “Why is this lady speaking to me?” It's totally different. Down there, it was, “Yes, ma’am. No, sir,” like the right stuff. It encouraged my soul even more. This is how I want to sound to people.

What’s the hardest part of your job?

When other employees bring their personal business here as opposed to leaving it outside. Everybody on this earth is going through something, but I choose to leave mine outside because I come here to give the best performance, because this is like a stage for me to be my best self. The mission is about the students. No students, no us. I think some people forget that.

What is the most rewarding part?

I had been here not even a year, and they did a Thanksgiving “write down what you feel like the workers at Allison Dining Hall do.” That whole thing was talking about “Ms. Mary” this and “Ms. Mary” that. Even when the women's basketball [team] selected me to honor me for Black History Month, I didn't know it was a big ordeal that I'm on Facebook, IG, Twitter.

It was overwhelming for me, because I just do the same stuff every day: being nice. People like, “Oh my god, you’re famous.” I thought it was hilarious, but that gives me confirmation that I'm doing the right stuff.

What is your relationship like with the athletic teams at Trienens?

[Women’s basketball Coach Ivy Abiona] was like, “You're always positive, even when we’re having a losing season.” I'm just giving words of encouragement, like, “Let me know if I can help with anything.” I do it for the baseball, women's softball, volleyball girls, everybody that I come into contact with because they all come into my facility. When I have time, I go show the athletes support. I talk loud, I clap loud, I do the claw.

Anything else you want to add about working at NU?

When someone’s feeling down, I always make little specialty bags where I might give a Northwestern hat for somebody that’s going through something. I love seeing people smile. I always put other people’s feelings before mine. That’s just who I am.

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