The enthusiasm is infectious when you’re talking to Jayna Whitehead. In a discussion that’s as far-ranging as the generosity of New Mexico State University’s (NMSU) students, to the art of producing professionally made videos for YouTube, Whitehead is the kind of person you’d probably want to talk with if you wanted to know what it takes to be a Barnes & Noble College store manager. And if that weren’t enough, she’d also be happy to explain to you the rules of the Giant Marshmallow Contest. But to start at the beginning: Last fall, NMSU President Garrey Carruthers challenged his campus to create events that would not only engage the student body, but also help them give back to the greater community of Las Cruces. It was a challenge Whitehead, who manages the Barnes & Noble at New Mexico State University bookstore, and Tech Department Manager Audree Smith, gladly seized with a highly creative take on the popular Hunger Games series — they created the NMSU Hungry Games.
In the Hunger Games franchise, Katniss Everdeen is selected by lottery to participate in the grueling contest to the death in return for food, supplies and riches for her home district. In the NMSU version, the food gathering was for the benefit of Casa de Peregrinos, a food pantry in Las Cruces, and enlisted the help of the university’s clubs and Greek organizations. “As the goal of the games was to help community involvement, each team member was required to donate a canned food item to participate,” explains Whitehead.
An additional benefit was that the teams would earn funding for their club or Greek organization for volunteering and helping to organize and run the games. “It was really a great opportunity for everyone,” Whitehead points out. “The Las Cruces community benefited from some much needed food supplies, our campus community could earn volunteer hours, and the activities also helped generate more interest and traffic to the store,” she adds.
As part of The Hungry Games, teams participated in a series of challenging activities, including a wacky relay, the before-mentioned giant marshmallow eating contest, a tug-of-war, a balloon toss, a three-legged race, Pictionary, and the perennial classic, Twister. “We held the games on a Saturday morning and I think the students were initially skeptical about participating, but once they had completed one event, they really got into it,” remembers Whitehead.
Although many students didn’t know what to expect, the idea of helping others, particularly in their own community, was a compelling reason to participate. “The first annual Hungry Games was a tremendous success,” says Collin King, a Graduate Assistant at NMSU. “Apple, Barnes and Noble, and NMSU students gathered to support our local food bank and play a variety of fun and hilarious games. It ended up being a great day.” That sentiment was echoed by freshman William Van Order, who competed with the Associated Students of NMSU, the student government organization on campus. “This was the best way to spend a Saturday — having fun and helping others,” he says.
The winning teams, who included names such as The Muffin Men and The One Man Wolf Pack, were those who participated in the most events and were rewarded with gift cards to the store. The campus VA Association won the most food donated category and took home an iPad mini as their prize. If the design of the contest was creative, so too was the funding behind it. “Because we are an Apple tech store, they responded to our request for some marketing dollars by contributing $1,200,” Whitehead explains, “and we added our own store contribution which could be put toward the prizes.”
The food drive ran from the beginning of November through the end of finals, and the awareness of the Casa De Peregrinos mission certainly gave the bookstore team some food for thought. Behind all the fun, The Hungry Games had a serious objective as Casa de Peregrinos serves not only Las Cruces, but also much of Doña Ana County. It’s a neighborhood familiar to hardship with nearly one-quarter of its residents currently living below the poverty level. “This is the first time we’ve attempted anything like this, but we’re definitely going to do it again. There really are so many people and families in need,” Whitehead says.
If the Barnes & Noble at NMSU bookstore has become the venue for the serious business of Frappuccino drinking contests, creating informative, fun videos and fireplace movie nights in the store’s ‘living room,’ it’s just one reflection of how Whitehead and her team view their role of supporting the campus. “Some of those fun activities are a great way to get more involved in the community here,” she points out, “and our goal really isn’t to be the Barnes & Noble College bookstore, but the NMSU bookstore. Our focus is serving the school and its students and faculty.”
Although Whitehead’s achievements at NMSU are impressive, they’re not unique. Every day on campuses across the country there are 700 stories like hers as store managers dedicate their time and energy to their students and college communities with a commitment that regularly exceeds their job description. As Whitehead might tell you, “One of the reasons I took this job was because of the opportunity to participate in the campus and to help the community,” she says. And that kind of commitment involves a lot more than just minding the store.