Saturday, May 15, 2010

Not your typical college students

They wear matching cobalt blue polos and navy blue tactical pants. They roam the streets of College Park until 2 a.m. to maintain civility among people of the town. They despise the drunken students scattered along Route 1 on the weekends. They’re the University of Maryland Student Police Aides.

To begin their 7 p.m. to 2 a.m. shift, SPA’s meet with their supervisors to discuss what location they will be patrolling either by foot or car and what radios will be assigned to them. Tonight, it will be by foot and I will join seniors Eric Dorcey, 21 and Danielle George, 27, on the South Campus Route where we will patrol from Campus Drive to Guilford Road. After leaving the break room containing desks full of paperwork, SPA’s playing Call of Duty and a broken foosball table, I was on my way to walk an entire three hours by foot to make sure the town of College Park and its people were acting in a civil manner.

With Dorcey’s Monster energy drink in hand and George’s time log to record what would happen during the night, we were ready to go. I was glad I wore two shirts and my winter jacket because it was going to be a bitter cold night, but the other two seemed to be grateful for the clear skies. “We have to patrol in the rain usually.

They just give us ponchos,” Dorcey said.
While walking by dorms, apartments, fraternity and sorority houses at 7 p.m., I began to hear the noises of the latest musical hits and students giggling, while chugging down beers before a night of fun at the bars. I couldn’t help but notice the annoyed looks of Dorcey and George, as if the sounds were causing them harm.

Dorcey later explained to me the duties they should fulfill during the night and how he sometimes wished they had more authority. Making sure cars were not parked in illegal places, escorting students to their dorm or car and making sure “Blue lights” [lights that one can press in cases of an emergency to immediately notify the police to come to the scene] on campus are functioning correctly are among the core duties of an SPA.

Dorcey and George have also had the duties to direct traffic and to prevent any horseplay before football or basketball games. “We go before and after the game to keep an eye on everyone,” said George, who added that this is usually the longest shift they have, more than 8 hours consecutively.

SPA’s are also the students who check identification at the entrance of Campus Drive from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. to keep out strangers with no need to be on the campus. “If you have no place to be, you’re turning around,” said George. “If they’re here for a party, we’re turning them down.”

Dorcey said he also has the authority to tell students to pour out an alcoholic beverage in hand while on campus. When asked why these two aren’t the ones with the alcoholic beverage in hand on the weekend, they both admitted that they are not interested in this particular lifestyle. On a rare occasion, some of the SPA’s meet for a drink after a long night’s shift, but Dorcey and George are not fans of the partying scene and the behavior that it comes with.

“The zombies are out,” said George around 10 p.m. when she saw drunken students’ silhouettes glaring in front of a car beeping to get by the large crowd.

George, who spends her free time caring for her grandmother with Alzheimer’s disease, said she doesn’t have the time for or interest in activities involving alcohol. In fact, George has had a lot of setbacks in her life that have caused her to delay her education. She took a break from college in 2003 when she was diagnosed with ADHD. She then worked at a podiatrist’s office for two years and then decided to re-enroll at the university. She has been at the university since while working as a Student Police Aide, caring for sick grandmother and working to obtain her bachelor’s degree in criminal justice.

For Dorcey, he admitted that the absence of alcohol in his childhood home is one reason he lacks an interest in drinking. His parents never took much of an interest in it and he has followed their footsteps. “Since I practically grew up a few blocks from UMD, I saw at a reasonable age how retarded college students could get with the assistance of alcohol and the absence of parental controls nearby,” he said. He admits the only time he would ever go out is if his co-workers were to join him at a low-key venue. Besides that, he is not interested.

Dorcey has been working as an SPA for a little over a year. As a criminal justice major, he knew being a Student Police Aide would provide him the experience needed for his future in law enforcement. But, he also wants to make money. Dorcey started at 8 dollars an hour when he began the job. “SPAs are part of the Police Auxiliary Bureau of the University Of Maryland Department Of Public Safety. The UMPD is part of the Department of Public Safety and Lieutenant Killion of the UMPD is in charge of the Police Auxiliary, so technically, we're headed by an officer,” said Dorcey. “There are about thirty to forty SPA’s at the University of Maryland.” He said that qualifications include being a student at the university and passing the screening test. According to a campus case study, 75% of SPA’s are on a law enforcement career track.

Dorcey explained that “training depends on the specific shift contract that you're signed up to work. They all involve being familiar with the contract manual for the shift, which details all of the information concerning the security needs of the building/shift. In addition, you have to be trained on the shift itself, which often entails a one-on-one orientation to the contract, where another SPA or a supervisor teaches you how to perform the required tasks.” According to the campus case study, University of Maryland Department of Public Safety Capt. John Brandt states “We use the Auxiliary to staff about 20,000 hours of security jobs all over the campus 365 days a year.”

For Dorcey, he typically works 30 hours a week while being enrolled in five courses. Although constantly busy, Dorcey enjoys being part of a workforce that could potentially “make a difference.” “We’re out in the community and actually doing something,” he said. Dorcey believes that by doing his job, he allows police to have more time to fulfill more important tasks, such as investigations and traffic stops.

With regrets of little time spent with his family and his girlfriend, Robyn, he admits that the camaraderie factor is what keeps him around. “The connections you make with other co-workers are great,” he said. “We’re able to swap stories and learn a lot about each other and really develop closeness.”

Developing closeness with people of the community is not unusual for SPA’s either. During the night, we came across a man parked illegally in front of the street on Princeton Avenue. As part of their trafficking duty, George and Dorcey were sure to ask him if he was going to move his truck out of the street. The man sported a handlebar mustache, was dressed in a plaid shirt, a cowboy hat, jeans and cowboy boots. It turns out it was Bill Coleman from Bill’s Backyard Barbeque, a Washington D.C catering business. Bill is known for making calls down to the police station whenever he has leftovers for the cops to come grab.

He invited us over to eat everything from brisket, pulled pork to pork ribs. He wouldn’t take no for an answer and explained that this was a replication of the food from Texas. He was proud to admit he has catered for former president George W. Bush and his family.

After hearing his story about being an ex-Marine and how his catering business is doing quite well, Bill handed us a souvenir of his homemade barbeque sauce that took him six months to concoct. With a full stomach, we were ready to hit the road and continue our search for kids up to mischief.

Another two weeks later, I had another shift with Dorcey again and a different SPA named Chad Seering. When walking around campus, students tensed up at the site of Dorcey and senior Seering, 22, who are the complete opposite in body physique. Dorcey, at a height of 6’7,” and athletic Seering, at a height of 5’9,” are an intimidating duo.

Dorcey exclaimed bluntly that Seering was a health freak. Seering wasn’t going to disagree. “His body is like a Greek god,” Dorcey said. Seering proudly announced that he exercises every day and eats only healthy foods. He’s not a fan of the drinking scene at College Park either and drinks only with family or close friends. “There are immature kids at the university,” he said. “They act stupid when drunk and I hate that.”

This was certainly apparent when we pushed through a large crowd that elongated from Potbelly’s to Yogiberry, a normal weekend night occurrence. Slurred speech, boys flirting with skimpy-dressed girls, reddened eyes and the lingering of alcohol odors was quite the scene to see.

Seering, a senior, admitted while walking through the crowd that he enjoys being the one who can serve as a ‘visual deterrence’ and potentially keeping students from committing illegal or stupid acts. He is also a criminal justice major and hopes to one day be involved in investigations of abused and neglected children.

After spending hours of my time with these three students, I found a trend among these Student Police Aides. I found that after they see the behavior of intoxicated students on a day-to-day basis, they become completely turned off with this lifestyle.

And although we weren’t able to stop riots or force students to pour out the beer in their conspicuous red cup, I was able to see how serious the Student Police Aides are about their jobs and how their duties are always their first priorities. They had no shame in telling fellow students what they were doing is wrong and were proud about being a part of a different kind of clique.

Friday, May 14, 2010

For the love of ‘fresh’ orange chicken

Hispanic employees, Americanized orange chicken, food cooked in a wok and called “Gourmet Chinese Food.” It can’t get more authentic than this. Welcome to Panda Express.

Though authenticity doesn’t seem to be its forte, the freshness of Panda Express’ food and the ability to see the food being cooked seems to be a recipe for this thriving fast-food chain’s success and a common reason that customers keep coming back. In fact, the hype for Panda Express is certainly apparent at the University of Maryland Stamp Student Union. On a Friday afternoon, the line was double that of any other restaurants, with over 20 customers. People of all ethnicities and ages awaited the taste of the trademarked orange chicken on their taste buds. Any student will tell you, its smell is most distinct too.

There is an open kitchen where customers can stand and watch exactly how their food is being cooked, which provides a sense of comfort compared to Chick-fil-A, where all you can see is your food thrown down a metal slide. The food is then set onto electric burners and replaced quite often, which represents the freshness of the food.

What makes Panda Express so different from McDonalds, Saladworks, Sbarro, or Chick-fil-A Express?

Well, taking a look at Chick-fil-A Express and McDonalds, we are rarely aware of what is going on behind the counter when in the food-making process. Also, one may notice that Sbarro’s pizza is always magically there, but rarely does one see the chef twirling the crust above their head. But, at Panda Express, you see chefs in aprons and tall hats, while frying orange chicken in a wok. Knowing that customers can see what is being cooked may make customers more at ease to spend the extra buck for a meal that is made right and “hygienically.”

“The food seems to be fresh because it is consistently being replaced,” said junior Zemen Habtemarian. This is true because the food is seemingly so often bought that the employees replace trays with fresh new food.

Though freshness seems to be its strong point, the restaurant certainly isn’t flawless. One misleading point that appears on the menu is that there are 250 calories per serving of each entrée, but what they don’t tell you is how many servings are in each entrée. Most students know the food is to be healthy, but still seem to come back.

Senior Jonnie Corrado, who eats at Panda Express occasionally, mentioned “it almost always makes me feel sick.” Another student, junior Ethan Rothstein, ordered a side of chow mein with Sweetfire Chicken Breast and Beijing Beef. When asked why he didn’t order the infamous orange chicken, he said that it does not have the redeeming quality of other entrees that combine vegetables to mitigate bad fats. He also admitted that after eating orange chicken, he rarely feels well. Is there a trend here?

After using Panda Express’ nutritional calculator, there were 1,220 calories in my meal. That’s more than half than most people’s daily recommended calorie intake. My meal consisted of Orange Chicken, Black Pepper Chicken and fried rice. The Black Pepper Chicken was a combination of both tender and juicy meat with a spicy aftertaste. The Orange Chicken was also tender and the flavor quite sweet and tangy.

On the menu, entrees include broccoli beef, veggie spring rolls, mushroom chicken, black pepper chicken and much more. Sides include mixed vegetables, chow mein, steamed rice, or fried rice.

Two entrees and one side run at $5.99 whereas three entrees and one side run at $7.99. It seems like a good deal, but if you plan to wash all of that fried food down, be prepared to spend another dollar or two for a drink. In reality, meals actually range from around 7 to 9 bucks.

Though a bit pricey, Americanized and possibly unhealthy for one’s body, everyone can agree that Panda Express’ food tends to seem a bit fresher than any other restaurants with obscure kitchens. Maybe this is why the restaurant is considered to be one of the fastest growing food-chains in the United States, according to the Panda Express Web site.