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How I Turned My College Food Service Job Into A Career Stepping Stone

After b’fasting on an un-topped smoothie bowl that was a bit too thin, I pulled my favorite navy and cream dress over my head and went off to work. A few focused hours later, I came home from a day of checking my university department’s Trello boards, sending Twitter notifications, and organizing a social media calendar for next month. I’m pretty sure I’m getting good at this job because my bosses are throwing cool projects in my hands — and I’m enjoying it.

I started my first paid social media internship two months ago. In this internship, I work with four graphic design interns and three full-time marketing and communications specialists. The office is open, laid-back, and flooded with fliers and printouts of our department’s branding. Most of the time, the office environment is focused and quiet, but there are a bunch of really cool side conversations that happen. Every day is different, but most days are pretty satisfying so far.

Did I mention that this is also food social media internship? I’m a foodie and LOVE food!

This internship is actually in the food department where I used to be a student manager: my university’s dining services.

Yes, that’s right! I used to be a dining hall manager (or student leader, as my university calls it), and at the time, it had nothing to do with my interests. As much as I would’ve loved to say I spent my journalism major days assisting Anna Wintour, I was in a position where paying rent was more important than free designer shoes. I didn’t want to rely on my family for that, and for the most part, I couldn’t — but it was okay!

Much of the time, fashion- and beauty-loving me to walk around campus with a black manager shirt that made her sweaty, wearing old jeans and under-styled hair pulled up into a hat. While I didn’t dress like that every day, this was mostly the Halloween-costume version of me for four semesters straight. And not only did I dress like that most days, I did a lot of simple tasks: wiping down serving counters and making sandwiches for customers.

While managing my 300-student employee dining hall, I kept a smile on my face at all times (well, most of the time).

I must stress that I wasn’t a manager at the start. Like the other 300 people, I walked in just as they did, yet another employee. When asked to do something by the people who were managers back then, I just did it without complaining. I didn’t want to lose my job by rolling my eyes — I needed it for rent’s sake. A couple of head student managers at the time noticed this positive attitude — and I got promoted to their level three weeks after starting.

After the exciting promotion, my attitude got even better.

I learned everything I could, trained my way up to my manager’s uniform, treated people well, and showed passion for my job — even though it wasn’t the job I dreamed of. At this job, students weren’t the only employees. There were several full-time employees, and I smiled and got to know them, too. They were service workers, and they taught me hard work isn’t always glamorous, but you always must take it seriously.

Over time, I built a really good reputation throughout the department the operates all the dining halls, food stores and coffee shops on my school’s campus.

One day, I saw the company was looking for a social media intern online, and I immediately sent in my resume. Given my resume was strong and included not only my management role, but lots of unpaid writing and social media jobs, too, I got the internship.

I now work in my department’s main office on campus, and the timing worked out great. I finished my college classes before starting this job, but my college apartment lease wasn’t over, and I still needed to complete an internship. I currently still have my lease to pay until August, and all I can say is I’m lucky to have an internship with a department I love that’s also in town. I’m also happy that it’s social media, and correlates to what I majored in. I’m even happier that I get to take lots of pictures of the food served, interview people for social media campaigns, and be a part of the department’s branding.

I wouldn’t have gotten here if I hadn’t seen the brand from the bottom up. I saw the department from a customer’s standpoint, a service worker’s standpoint, and a manager’s standpoint, and my current bosses liked that.

I’m just one employee who took a service job that some people might not consider to be a “real job,” and worked my way up. I bet there are some employees who have wrapped thousands of burritos, and now have corporate careers with Chipotle. People take these paths because they know that work matters, make their own living, learn good people skills and understand the importance of connections. I know those things, because my service job taught me them.

I have connections with many high-up people in the company, my name is known, and thus I am trusted to create Insta posts about the new meat we’re serving.

I also bettered my communication abilities in those four semesters as a manager. (That’s what happens when you have 300 employees to worry about!) I have to run all my social media ideas with the communication specialists before running with them, and being able to deliver and sell those ideas with strong communication helps.

There are definitely more things I could say about this experience, but I’d just be rambling. I will, however, end it with this: Nobody wants to work a sweaty job in college, and nobody wants to be taking several credit hours on top of that, but money and time are valuable. We must make the most of both while we can.

The fact I have had my own income at all while in school means I was able to learn the harsh reality of money. Paying rent as a working student is hard — I’ve had to pay many late fees on a wage that was slightly above minimum. But, you know what? I’m stronger for paying those late fees and getting through it all.

Those hours of making sure my dining hall’s honey mustard dispenser was filled led to a chance to build a social media portfolio. I’m going to keep my positive outlook, because I know this internship will help me in the long run. Maybe I’ll be able to use my work to get a job in digital media…or I may end up at an ad agency…or I’ll work in higher ed communications…or I might make a career out of side hustles. I’ll see. But for now, I’m really glad I understand the power of hard work. Not all college grads understand how important doing well at work is for self care, but I do — and I’m proud!

One day she’ll figure everything out, but for now, Sophia is just a writer, makeup artist, and hilarious human being. She loves pugs and dreams about marrying Brandon Boyd.

Image via Pexels

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