Shirley Tartaglia, a well-loved University of New Mexico cafeteria employee at La Posada is retiring on May 12. She will be moving on to bigger adventures with family and friends in Pennsylvania, where she was born and raised.
Since 2007, Shirley, known best around campus by her first name, has played a prominent role in the homeyness of La Posada’s atmosphere. Her commendable capacity for remembering thousands of students’ names in her time as a greeter at La Po’s front desk while swiping each of their ID cards, has made her the unofficial mascot of UNM’s most popular dining spot.
She was recently presented an award from the Student Residence Center for her efforts welcoming students into the dining hall.
When Ruth Stoddard, UNM operations manager of Resident Life & Student Housing, bumped into Shirley at La Po one day, Shirley confided in her about her plans for retirement and moving back to Pennsylvania. At the time, Shirley had not told many people about her approaching last days at UNM.
“I love my job. I love the kids. Right now they're my life. This is very bittersweet, but it's something I've always wanted to do. My family and friends are back there [Pennsylvania] and I've kept in touch with them all these years. I'm anxious to go back.” – Shirley Tartaglia
Since finding out about Shirley’s upcoming life changes, Stoddard thought it a good time to reflect on all of the work that Shirley has put into her time on campus.
Stoddard came to UNM in June of 2010. As she got to know the residents and adjusted to her position, Stoddard immediately admired Shirley’s love and dedication to them.
Shirley works the front door, greeting anyone who walks into La Po, whether they're swiping their Lobo ID or using cash. When they hand her their ID card, which has their name on it, she can easily memorize their first name. She often addresses each student with a simple, “Hi, Scott,” and hands their card back. This name identification goes far beyond an obligation to her job position.
Shirley has close bonds with thousands of students.
“If you think about it, we have approximately 2,000 students with meal plans on Main Campus. And then you’ve got Casa del Rio students that have meal plans as well. That’s another 800 students,” Stoddard said. “Shirley learns well over 3,000 names in an academic year ⸺ and that's not counting the staff and faculty that dine at La Po from time to time. If you were to multiply that by the 16 years she's been working here, she knows a whole heck of a lot of people and has done the work of making La Po students feel very welcome.”
Students feel so welcome that many have made Shirley their confidante when it comes to their daily lives, their mental health and big exams they have coming up. From breakfast to lunch, the front desk is Shirley’s natural habitat. Students crane their necks in search of her if she’s not there to swipe their cards and often ask, “Where’s Shirley?” to other La Po staff on duty.
There’s a daily morning ritual where several La Po regulars close to Shirley will fist bump her when she swipes their card, and every Friday, will try to beat each other to the punch when saying “TGIF!” to Shirley. Many of them come in each week with new phrases they invented behind the acronym to share with her.
Shirley recalls a story where one loud student stood up during a La Po fire drill and yelled, “Save Shirley!”
When students are new to UNM and seek out a community, miles away from their families, having a constant as comforting as Shirley has a lasting effect on these students.
Shirley still remembers the name of a student she used to hug very frequently. The young freshman thanked her for a hug one day because it reminded her of her mother back home. When Shirley learned of the student’s homesickness, she made a point to hug the student whenever she got the chance. A while later, this student’s mother sent Shirley a letter in the mail, thanking Shirley for all she did for her daughter.
Shirley’s memory has done wonders for her over the years.
“Well, I tell you, sometimes I surprise myself,” she said. “I'm just glad I have it and I hope I don't lose it.”
Out of all of the quality of life surveys that UNM gives out for students who live on campus in university housing, the majority of the surveys praise Shirley, Stoddard said.
Last week, Shirley broke the news of her retirement to Dane Edwards, a UNM student. He was sad to hear she was on her way out of La Po, but wished her the best.
“I’m excited for her. She will be missed so much,” Edwards said. “I come here smiling, and I leave here smiling.”
Two years ago, after Shirley’s husband died, she took some ashes back to Pennsylvania for her son. She wasn’t ready to relocate there, yet, but her son eventually convinced her to put herself first and make the leap.
“I love my job. I love the kids. Right now they're my life. This is very bittersweet, but it's something I've always wanted to do. My family and friends are back there [Pennsylvania] and I've kept in touch with them all these years. I'm anxious to go back.”
Shirley has big plans for Pennsylvania. While there, she will reunite with old friends, siblings, cousins, children and grandchildren. A road trip may even be in the cards for her, she added.
La Po is where campus residents go for a reprieve from stressors and to be in the company of people they enjoy spending time with. For Shirley to come out above all of the bustling resident life is very noteworthy. She’s managed to make one banal thing like swiping an ID card a personable experience.
“She made you feel important. She made you feel glad that you came by, and in college where sometimes you're just a number, having someone actually address you by your name speaks volumes,” said Stoddard.
Stoddard urges that people reserve all of their stereotypes and classisms for cafeteria people for a moment and think about how big of a difference this one cafeteria staff has made in students’ lives. Shirley will be missed.