By Andriana Rice-Gilmore
It was the first warm day of the spring semester. Students wore jeans with rips and T-shirts without jackets. The walk from the dorms to Cranberry’s seemed even more worthwhile. Was it because of the weather? Or simply because it was known that the radiance of Paulette “Momma P” White, the campus mother away from home, would beam even brighter?
“Good morning baby. Are you enjoying the weather?” said White as she greeted every student with her well-known energy and sweet smile. Born and raised in Trenton, New Jersey, she has been a Rider University employee for 37 years. White has worked in Rider’s food department for a multitude of years, but today, she spends countless hours greeting students, checking their Campus Clear apps and taking their temperatures to make sure it meets Center of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines.
“I get up in the morning and thank God for waking me up, but I also love getting up in the morning and coming here and being around the students. It’s a beautiful thing and I enjoy it,” said 62-year-old White.
Rider has an enrollment of almost 4,000 students, many of whom usually live on campus and utilize the dining halls. Cranberry’s has a protocol that offers students the option to either dine-in while social distancing or to take their meals to go. Since March of 2020, Rider has respected and encouraged students to take safety precautions and follow the protocols that have been set in place to maintain a healthy community.
“Kids will come in here and have more than four people in the booth and I have to separate them. I know they want to be near each other, but we have to follow the protocols. But I remind them that they have to go home to their parents. Staying safe is most important to them,” White said as a wave of students walked through the Cranberry’s doors, each greeted with a “Welcome!” or “How are we doing today?”
White has been an employee at Rider since the school was called Rider College, officially being granted university status in 1994. She has seen the community transition and experienced a variety of events, circumstances and situations, but this she believes to be one of the most historical and impactful occurrences.
She said, “This is history. And I just pray for our country and I pray for everyone to come together and respect each other more.”
She added, “It’s so different. I cannot wait for it to be over with. It took a big effect on me and my family. My daughter is a dental hygienist and she has to work with the public, so she doesn’t want to come around me too much. Just to look at people who have parents in the nursing home and can’t see them is heartbreaking.”
When coronavirus started to become a household name, many were told that the older generation was the most at risk to be exposed to the virus. Now, it is known that anyone, of any age, can be easily infected with the virus and even become a carrier. Many university students have had to quarantine in dorms, such as Conover Hall, which have become specified for students who may have come in contact with the virus.
“This is all a mess. So many people are having funerals and not allowing everyone to come. I don’t want to go out that way, I want to go out with a big bang. My daughter says, ‘Mom trust me, you’d probably have two funerals because you know everyone,’” she said as she chuckled at the honesty of her noticeable fame and prepared her hand-held thermometer for the students that were approaching the doors. A gust of warm wind entered along with the students as their eyes lit up to see “Momma P.”
“The students call me ‘Momma P.’ I love it because I am that mother figure. Kids come here from home and you don’t know what they’re going through. Sometimes they need a mom from home. This one kid will sit and talk to me for hours just because,” White said.
She added, “I know who I can say something to and I know who I can’t. But the majority of the students I have an automatic connection with.”
Senior elementary education major Kayla Williams said, “I genuinely have a love for that woman. It’s so refreshing to see someone that you know actually cares for the students.”
Many students attend Rider from different regions, states and countries. This means that they are spending many days away from their loved ones which can be difficult, especially because many people are starting to appreciate their families more due to the pandemic.
“She makes you feel welcomed and loved no matter who you are or what time of day it is. You can describe her and everyone will say the same thing. That she’s such a nice person, she’s funny and she really does remind you of a mother,” Williams said.
Students see “Momma P” as more than just a staff member, which can be rare to find. White continued to remain the same positive piece of the Rider community, regardless of the negative effects of the virus.
“Money and hours have changed. I also miss the smiles and talking to everyone. I’ve worked in Daly’s for so many years, but recently it has started to become boring to the point I didn’t even want to come to work. It really put a damper on everything. It’s a ghost town. I’ve been here for so many years and have watched this place grow and change and now it’s just empty,” she said.
She included, “I have become friends with a lot of the staff and teachers over the years. They’ve been to my house and I’ve been to theirs. They look at me as a friend rather than a worker. I miss all of that.”
However, she mentioned, “Over quarantine, I have had my family come and stay with me. My kids and my niece and nephew always catch me and put me on their TikTok. That TikTok app is something else.” She added, “It’s been really good family time, but at the same time, it was too much time together. I’m happy to be back.”
Like White, students have been making the best of the situation. Although things are not entirely normal, the university has been making transitions back to normality. Students seem to be eager for the weather to be warming, with hopes that it will bring positivity and smiles back to campus. Smiles that would match the luminous of Rider’s “Momma P.”
Story published in the 04/14/21 issue of The Rider News.