What I Learned From Working An On-Campus Job People Looked Down On
Surveying the part-time job scene in a college town often means balancing many factors beyond just the paycheck you’re chasing. Research positions are scholarly and resume-worthy but few and far between. Restaurant jobs mean long hours working on tips, but can be social and pay off. Babysitting is lucrative but inconsistent. On-campus jobs are often the least glamorous, but most understanding of school schedules.
I’m in grad school, but for most of my college career had at least one part-time job, if not more. I like keeping a busy schedule and am fortunate enough to be able to pocket most of what I make, instead of giving it to loans. But to dig a little deeper, it’s probably up for debate exactly how much I’ve actually “worked” — or at least, that’s how I was made to feel. Declarations that I’m missing an outing with friends for a shift are often met with a healthy dose of air quotes around the word “work.” While my resume displays marginally respectable/glorified job titles, ask most people around my university, and the part-time positions I’ve had are more often described as “just the front desk girl.”
Unfortunately, when I say “just the front desk girl” you know what I’m talking about – the duties typically look like some combination of greeting visitors, answering phones, printing labels, and “twiddling our thumbs.” We’re the ones with an encyclopedia of knowledge at the ready – whether about schedules, phone extensions, or office supplies – that we seldom have to use. It’s how I imagine goalies must feel – people only really notice you when you mess up. Sometimes you’re vital, most of the time, you’re invisible.
But the longer I spend as “just the front desk girl”, the more I’m taking the time to revel in that anonymity. I can stumble without taking the whole operation down with me, and contribute without the risk of feeling manically stressed or self-important. I’m learning to read people quickly, to accept criticism and complaints with a smile, and to make even the simplest systems more efficient. At our best, front desk employees blend in, solving problems quietly, or ideally, before they even happen. And as many a career advisor has told me, everyone loves a problem solver.
So I’m not offended anymore when people say I’m “just” the front desk girl. They’re right, I am. It keeps me appreciative, humble and striving. More than anything, it has shown me that as great as positive feedback may be, it is just as gratifying, and even more empowering, to decide for yourself when something is a job well done.
And while these jobs may leave me scrambling for good anecdotes in behavioral interviews, they’ve also passed along some bits of wisdom that are certainly useful to the Front Desk Girl in all of us. Here are four crucial things I’ve learned:
Ask your boss questions.
Maybe it’s not your dream to be the manager of an event space, or hair salon, or historical site. But just because you’re not planning to stay in your college town forever doesn’t mean your college town boss isn’t as crucial a contact as that consulting recruiter you’ve been stalking. The networking grind never sleeps, and the odds are good that your boss has one or two things on their resume that’ll surprise you.
Be on your toes
In my short career as amateur front desk girl, I’ve found myself speechless in unexpected run-ins with everyone from Sandra Day O’Connor to my favorite college basketball heartthrob-turned-Lebron teammate. Jobs on the front desk tier can often mean minimal supervision. Particularly in college, it’s often all I can do not to show up stressed, tired, and pretending leggings are business casual. But every job comes with surprises and you’ll thank yourself later if you come prepared. In the words of working woman icon Mindy Kaling, “put on some lipgloss and pretend to be psyched.”
Always be nice to the caterers.
And the housekeepers. And the security guards. I picked this tip up early from my mom, who spent years working in event planning, and taught me the important career (and life) lesson that you should always cozy up to the people who control the food. And she was definitely right – nothing turns a long shift around more that someone setting aside an extra plate of dessert for you. Occasionally, I get to be queen of the roommates when I come home with boxes of leftover hors d’oeuvres, and half full bottles of wine. Not to mention the gourmet snacks alone are often worth more than the minimum wage I’m making. But more than that, these people are your allies, no matter where they fall in the office hierarchy. I’ve had my butt saved more times than I can count by maintenance workers who unlocked the office when I forgot my keys, and janitors who cleaned rooms I forgot about. Despite you’re nearly-finished Philosophy degree and prestigious-but-unpaid summer internship, everybody knows its really these people who keep the place running, and trust me when I say you’ll want them on your side.
Improve yourself (or your bank account)
Working the front desk means a lot of idle time. Resist the temptation to waste it. The regret that sets in after a four hour shift of Pinterest-ing and Facebook stalking is real. It’s also so very avoidable. Bring a book you’ve been meaning to read for pleasure. Pay your bills. Write Thank You Notes. Even better, if you have another job where you can work remotely, become your own side hustle role model, and work double time. Above all, take pride in what you do, and the problems you solve, even when no one is watching.
Carly is a grad student, and a Shonda Rhimes fanatic living in Virginia. Her semi-professional Twitter is still a work in progress.