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Midnight Breakfast Is Food For The Soul At UIUC

Dusty Rhodes/NPR Illinois
The Men of Impact kitchen crew includes Olivier Jacques (in John Deere hat), Uyi Idemudia (in white hoodie), and Dwayne Mitchell (in the Nike cap).

For college students, December means cramming for final exams. Some schools try to help students keep studying by serving midnight breakfast in the dining halls. But one student group at the University of Illinois puts their own twist on that tradition.

It’s 10:30 on a Thursday night at the Bruce Nesbitt African American Cultural Center, better-known to most University of Illinois students as simply the “Black House.” There’s music bumping, guys playing video games, another group playing Spades. Olivier Jacques, a sophomore studying accounting, explains what’s about to happen.

“It’s been a tradition for Men of Impact for about 10 years now to host a midnight breakfast just for the black community to come out, take a break from studying,” Jacques says. “Everybody congregates here, they get free food, and it’s just like been a part of the black community here at U of I. for such a while, people expect it. It’s part of their finals tradition.”

Some students use it as incentive to spend the school’s official “Reading Day” studying late into the night.

“That’s what I did today,” Jacques says. “I knocked out a lot of my work earlier in the day. So I think a lot of people are probably actually studying right now, and they know at midnight they’re going to come here.”

They keep the menu simple: Pancakes, scrambled eggs and bacon.

A lot of campuses provide a midnight breakfast during finals week. It often features faculty serving a menu prepared by the staff. At the Black House, it’s the Men of Impact, a student organization for guys who want to be positive role models, both on and off the U. of I. campus. For example, they go every week to the local Boys & Girls Club to mentor younger kids. But on this night, in this cramped little kitchen, it’s all trash talk about cooking skills.

And no one talks more trash than this guy.

“Trayshawn! When you make scrambled eggs that look like this, come holler at me.”

He’s Uyi Idemudia (his parents are from Nigeria), a senior majoring in community health, and he was jokingly taunting Men of Impact’s president, Trayshawn Mitchell.

“I was talking like that to him because he was trying to call me out. He said my scrambled eggs looked like an omelette, and I’m like, ‘It’s a process. Trust the process, bro.’ ”

Idemudia’s schedule serves as a good reminder of why students crave the physical and emotional nourishment of midnight breakfast.

“I pulled an all-nighter on Monday night, like, I did not sleep at all,” he says. “I took both exams with no sleep. Right after the second exam, I had to go to work. After work, I had to go to a group project meeting for a presentation in my next class the next day. And then I was able to get some rest.”

But how did he do on his finals?

“Oh,  I aced them,” he says.

As midnight approaches, a line forms all the way into the foyer. When a local minister arrives to bless the food, and asks the students to form a circle holding hands, no one budges.

“If we can’t make a circle, that’s fine,” he says. “What better place to be than at college right now, at the University of Illinois, at BNAACC right now, surrounded by people that look just like you, that’s going to motivate you. You made it to the University of Illinois, you know what I’m saying? Anything above that is like, what -- Ivy League?”

Everyone removes their hats and bows their head for the preacher’s prayer:

“Lord Father God we ask that you continue to bless the food for the nourishment of our bodies, bless the hands that have prepared it, and also bless those who are less fortunate. In Jesus’ name, we ask these things.”

The roomful of students responds with a hearty “Amen!”

One of the first people through the line is Bitanya Gebrekristos, a junior majoring in human development and family studies.

“It’s good! The food is really good,” she says. “These boys are really trying their best.”

Of course, that’s not the real reason she’s here.

“The people, the environment, being at the Black House, being around people that make it home, that give it a homey feel,” she says. “And also, this is a group of people dedicated to giving back to the black community on campus. So you just have this warm community feeling that, you know ... you have that sense of kinship, you have that motivation. It’s kind of like you play off each other’s vibes, like a natural high. We go back to our rooms, we go okay, I’m up for studying some more.”  

Every student organization has an adult advisor, and for Men of Impact, it’s Chris Lewis. He spends the entire evening out in the lobby, trusting the students to handle their own event. He quibbles about the seasoning on the eggs, but not much else.

“I’m just glad to be in the presence of these students,” he says. “Yes, I’m their advisor, but at the same time, I learn so much from them just by their drive, their perseverance, their resilience and, you know, their desire to want to be a part of something bigger than themselves.”

Nobody took a head count, but attendance outpaced the supply of pancakes. Lewis estimates that about 85 U. of I. students hiked across campus that night in the snow to have breakfast at the Black House. A crew of at least 10 young men stayed afterwards to clean up, finishing the job around 2:30 a.m.