Beloved Mac food service employee reflects on 37 years of work
Most people come to Mac expecting to spend four or five years here. But for Vojka Jovanovic, it’s been nearly 40 years.
As an employee of McMaster Hospitality Services, Vojka has come to be one of the university’s most beloved employees. From her post at Centro’s NeedaSub station, she offers both sandwiches and life advice to students.
“I am here almost 37 years and I feel like I start yesterday,” said Vojka of her time working at Centro.
Hailing from Montenegro, Vojka immigrated to Canada 40 years ago, knowing basically no English.
“When I come… I only know three words [in English]. My name, my last name, and my address,” she said.
With little English experience, she got her first job in the country working at the Rathskeller Refectory, many years before it became Bridges and The Phoenix.
After one year, she moved from the refectory to what would become her second home.
“[They] said to me, ‘Vojka, we need you in the Commons building. We got about 1,000 students who need to be served food.’ And I say, ‘okay, I try my best,’” she explained. “I try my best to learn English, to communicate with people. And the moment I stepped in I feel like I’m home. I don’t know what it is, but that was my feeling,”
While the location she has worked in has been the same, much has changed in food services in her time at McMaster.
“Looking at the Commons now, and looking Commons thirty seven years ago, it’s a huge difference, because today I don’t know what we’re missing here.”
Vojka’s pride in her workplace became clear when The Silhouette sat down with her. In fact, there was hardly any sitting involved, as she insisted on showing off the amenities that Centro has to offer.
“I think the cafeteria look like a huge hotel sometimes,” she said.
This wasn’t always the case. Vojka described how, in earlier years while working on the salad bar, there weren’t always a lot of vegetables to be had.
“At that time, the vegetable was more expensive. We got green beans, we got Brussels sprouts, we got carrots. But [something] was always missing because they say ‘oh, it’s a little bit too expensive.’”
Instead, she and Maria, a fellow Commons employee, used to prepare something with fewer vegetables.
“We used to mixing 200 pounds macaroni and tuna salad. That was the favourite for the students,” she said.
The food preparation is only a part of the job for Vojka, however. Working in a meal hall that serves mostly first-year students, she has acted as an advisor, a mentor, and a mother away from home.
“I love my job very much, because I am mother, I got a feeling,” she said, suggesting that having a daughter of her own helped her to care for the students who frequent Centro.
“I feel so proud when I am in a line and some people come and they say ‘oh, Vokja, I miss my mother, I miss my father, I miss my brother.’ What else do you gonna do, you just hug them. You say ‘don’t worry, you going to be okay, you gonna love this place.’”
She explained how she loves to give students advice on anything in their life, from personal issues to their futures.
“Sometimes the student come to me and they say ‘Vokja, I like to be a doctor. What I should do, I am in first year here, you are like my mother, can you tell me?’ I say ‘Honey, eat, make yourself comfortable, study, make your mother proud. Live with your dream and you will be.’”
And such advice has been consistent over her many years at Centro. Vojka described how in Sept. 2013, she encountered a gentleman who was about 50 years old and had been a student at Mac.
“He come to me in line and he say ‘Vokja, can I hug you please, you was my best lunch lady. This is my son, he is a student here. Can you please take care about him?’ What else can I tell you, I feel so great. That is my thanks.”
Her encouragement extended as well to the Marauders, of whom she says she is a big fan.
“I tell them, ‘guys, before I retire, you gonna be number one.’ And yes, they was,” she said, citing the success of the Marauders football team at the Vanier Cup in 2011. The team, remembering how big a fan she was, returned to the University to take a picture with her and their trophy.
Even with such love for her job, Vojka admits that she can only continue for so long. With 37 years under her belt, she is looking to retire come April 2014.
“My time is over…pretty soon. I go to retire, because my body said maybe it’s enough. But I was very proud, very happy that I was working for McMaster. This is in my heart and I will keep it for as long as I live.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly spelled Vokja's last name. It is Jovanovic, not Ivanovitch.