I was standing in the checkout line at Basement Café when I heard her: an energetic lady cheerfully explaining to the two girls in front of me that they can get a discount with their guild sticker.

“It’s only 70 or 80 cents, but it’s your money,” she says with a huge smile.

The girls put their cards away after receiving the discount, and walk off with big grins.

This is a normal interaction with Rina Delanovski, one of the cafeteria staff working at Curtin, which is why students will wait so they can be served by her.

Rina was flattered that I wanted to interview her, and genuinely surprised that I found her interesting. While we chatted in between service, she proudly boasted that students have posted about her on the Confessions at Curtin Facebook Page, wished her a happy birthday, and even given her chocolate—all just for doing her job.“It’s the customers that make this job great,” she explains, beaming her infectious smile, “I absolutely love it.”

Rina has been working in the cafés at Curtin for the past 13 years, but it’s her position at the first till at the Basement Café—that she took up two and a half years ago—that she’s most proud of.

“I used to work in the kitchen, but once they put me out here, the customers [wanted] me out here. There’s no going back,” she laughs.

After her children left home and she was no longer needed to look after her mum, Rina found herself a little bored; so, this 69-year-old pocket-rocket found a new love in customer service.

“I adore working here,” she says, ducking away from the till to speak to me.

The café picks up pace as more students file in, and she steps away from me to jump back on the till. After serving one customer behind the second till, she says, “Well this isn’t going to work,” and ushers the man behind her till to swap positions with her.

“You obviously prefer your till,” I comment.

“Oh, definitely, darling. I know where everything is, even the cutlery—which I sometimes forget to hand out,” she laughs in response.

Rina recognises the boy that steps up next: “Oh, welcome back darling!” she beams at him as she carefully recites his order and enters it into the computer.

“Do you have Guild?” she asks.

And then, as he shows her the back of his student ID card: “Well done.”

“See you next time,” she grins, before turning to the next customer in line.

The boy walks away smiling, food in hand—the picture of a happy customer.

These are the kinds of interactions on university campuses that make me wonder how important a supportive and dynamic tertiary environment can be to a student’s wellbeing.

Scholarly investigations and national reports consistently find that interactions like these are beneficial to your mental health, particularly as a counter to many influences in our lives that make us feel unwell or anxious. When it comes to university students, there are many aspects of campus life that can be stressful.

According to the National Tertiary Student Wellbeing Survey 2016, “the main mental health-related factors affecting study were stress, low motivation, feeling anxious, and low mood”.

It notes that students report the major causes of stress to be an increase in their workloads around exam time, oral presentations and group work, along with financial pressures.

The low mood that effects so many students during stressful times can be reduced by studying in a safe and supportive environment—much like the environment Rina provides at the café, because she knows that when you interact with a happy person, you too feel happier.

This phenomenon is known as an “emotional contagion”; it’s recognised in psychological literature as a type of interpersonal influence, where your emotions are influenced by the emotions of those around you.

A 2014 article in Psychology Today explains that “a positive emotional contagion is a powerful tool for creating a workplace culture of ‘companionate love’—which has been shown to boost employee satisfaction and teamwork, and reduce absenteeism and emotional burnout.”

As students, we are often under immense pressure to do well in our studies, complete assignments, and participate in extracurricular activities—usually on top of working on the side to pay rent. As a result, our mental health can suffer.

The Student Wellbeing Survey found that 72 per cent of young adult students and 62 per cent of mature students (26 plus) reported at least one day in the past month when they were totally unable to work or study due to symptoms of mental health problems.

These are overwhelming statistics that point to the prevalence of a potential crisis of mental health among students.

But, perhaps, emotional contagions are a solution.

“The kids need the happy, and they keep you young. I feel 40,” Rina says, patting me on the arm in a playful way.

In between customers, I thank her for her time and leave the café with a sense of elation—undoubtedly due to the joy Rina spreads infectiously wherever she goes.

The Psychology Today article explains that this emotional exchange happens on a subconscious level, influencing our attitude, decisions and actions for the rest of the day without our knowledge.

This means Rina’s positive vibe is more beneficial to our emotional wellbeing than we realise. If the university hired more people like Rina, and we all acted a little more like her, perhaps those dreaded group assignments wouldn’t be so bad.

 

If you’re concerned about your mental health, Curtin have a range of services available to all students; visit  http://life.curtin.edu.au/health-and-wellbeing.htm,or, if you’re at the Bentley campus visit Building 109, to find out more.