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Michael Edmonson / Senior Staff Photographer

Stacy Jackson has three homes, spanning two boroughs and two continents.

Jackson considers her birthplace, Guyana, the Caribbean country on South America’s North Atlantic coast that she left with her mother and sister when she was seven years old, her original home. Her primary home is her apartment in Brooklyn, where she lives now with her two kids, Andrea and Marcus, her mother, Gloria, her sister, and her nephew. But JJ’s Place—Columbia’s familiar fast food dining hall found at the foot John Jay Hall’s staircase—is Jackson’s haven.

“At the end of the day,” Jackson sighs, “this is my second home.”

Jackson is the 1 to 6:45 p.m. cashier at JJ’s Place. Every day (and now through sunrise, until 10:00 a.m.), heavy, potent smells of comfort food waft from the JJ’s kitchen up the steps of John Jay Hall. “Every kid loves a hamburger or a chicken wing,” Jackson says fondly. “JJ’s community is just like any little place that someone could come, sit down, and have a meal to get to know each other.” She leans into our discussion, extending her forearms over the dark wood counter of our high table. Pressing a foot into the metal bar connecting her barstool’s front two legs, Jackson seems supported and comfortable. As we get to know each other, TV sports announcements, chatter between friends, clinking dishware, and top 40 radio music sing together, creating a strangely comforting symphony of sounds that are unique to JJ’s.

To Jackson, JJ’s is the “big living room” of Columbia. When JJ’s Place reopened after a months long renovation, Jackson and her colleagues felt like they were going home.

Jackson, her mother, and her sister have had little opportunity to visit Guyana since leaving decades ago. So, cooking Caribbean food together in Brooklyn is their family’s way of “going home” to Guyana everyday, and bringing the kids with.

Every morning before taking the subway to Columbia, Jackson gets up early to cook for the family. Breakfast is their staple meal, and Jackson’s son Marcus prefers substantive dishes to bowls of cereal and milk. Because Jackson’s favorite meal is breakfast, too, she indulges her son’s preference ungrudgingly.

For weekend dinners at home in Brooklyn, Jackson’s mother, Gloria, makes the entrées, while Jackson specializes in dessert. As her family’s “dessert person for any occasion,” Jackson makes pecan bars that her kids fantasize about hours before dinnertime.

But while Jackson is at JJ’s, her mother wields the spatula. Food is the strongest thread tying Jackson’s children to their Caribbean heritage—Jackson’s mother immerses them in it through regular Guyanese dinners.

Jackson’s interest in food began at a young age when she was in Guyana: While her son used to tell her that he wanted to become a firefighter, Jackson used to tell her own mother that she dreamed of going into the culinary arts.

Jackson grew up watching her mother work hard to move to the United States, buy a house, and support seven children on her own.

While her children have a long time before they even take the SATs—Marcus is 11, and Andrea is three—Jackson is doing everything in her power to ensure college is in their futures. “Right now, I’m teaching my kids that, no matter what, you have to go to college,” she says. “I don’t care how I have to pay for it, but you have to go to college. Have to. That is a must.”

She’s adamant, though, that her children pursue what they love. “Do what you want to do,” she says. “Do what is going to make you happy.”

Over the past 15 years, Jackson has watched students cycle through Columbia, overhearing countless conversations about financial aid and scholarships. “Nothing is handed to you,” Jackson explains. “You have to work for what you want.”

And working at Columbia has given Jackson the opportunity to mentor, comfort, and advise dozens of students, just as she does for her own children. “I tend to gear towards those kids who are far from home,” she explains. “I understand how they feel.”

She says that students who are homesick or feeling down should come to JJ’s, talk to her, and eat what makes them happy. Like parents who make special meals for their kids when they’re down, Jackson says JJ’s Place can do the same. “If you want a little of this, a little tweak to it, [the people at JJ’s Place] will do it for you.”

As she swipes people in every day, Jackson notices when students are exhausted, even if they don’t tell her. Sometimes, students look so drained, they appear to question why they’re still at Columbia. Jackson recalls an incident earlier in the day, when a School of Engineering and Applied Science student came into the dining hall, left, and, as he was giving his Columbia ID to go back inside once more, Jackson looked him in the eye and reminded him: “You need to go to sleep.”

Jackson recalls another student of hers whose insomnia forced him to take a year off. The student, Jackson explains, used to stand with her at the cash register for hours as she swiped people in, complaining about his rollercoaster sleep habits. He would stay up for days, then crash and burn. She’d advise him on different ways to cure his insomnia: warm baths, cups of tea. “That’s my ‘mother thing’ kicking into me,” she explains.

Many students come to Jackson stressed about sleep deprivation, exams, GPAs, and post-graduation plans. Others just come to learn about her and chat about their daily lives. Whether she’s a figure for counsel or friendship, Jackson reminds students that, even if they were at the top of their high school class, they are “coming into a school with a whole bunch of tops.”

Columbia’s competitive culture may be stressful for students, but Jackson believes that sometimes, we need to just let go, relax, and do what we have to do. Working hard and being a kid do not have to be mutually exclusive. “You can’t be a soldier all the time,” Jackson says. “You will have a boring life.”

In discerning how stress is a campus buzzword, Jackson opens up about the stress she and her colleagues experience. “We stress—we get stressed sometimes,” she admits. For Jackson, relocating to John Jay Dining Hall when JJ’s Place closed for renovations wasn’t easy. With one register and four cashiers, each with a different way of working, the John Jay booth got tight.

But no matter how difficult an issue, Jackson and her colleagues tend to keep stress to themselves. “We can’t show kids we stress,” she asserts. “We have to help y’all out with y’all stress.”

Jackson recalls her mother’s wisdom: Don’t take your problems to work, and don’t bring work home. “You just keep it in, and you find a way to let it go,” she says, “so you can help somebody to let it go.”

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