A Fine Dining Experience!

How a part time on-campus job experience taught me some finest lessons about work and life.

In 2015, I had arrived in NC State University, USA to gain a M.S in Electrical Engineering. But just like everyone knows how high the tuition and living expenses are in the USA, I decided to find some kind of an on-campus job to atleast pay my monthly bills like food, utilities and house rent. So, my job hunting begun and I actually ended up finding quite a few jobs, which included working with the University newspaper & media ( known as ‘Technician”), University Disability services and University Dining. As I was very keen to take up a job, so I decided to work at the media and disability services office. Soon, I realized that Disability services job was just once or twice a week, and paid very less. And the ‘Technician’ job was of a correspondent for which I had to write 10 opinion articles ( one per week), after which I will be accepted as a staff writer with pay. So, I was not going to earn much in these two jobs, as both hardly covered my monthly expenses. But I still continued with the Disability services, as it was a noble work, and I also liked helping students. And the Media job was something I always wanted, after having discovered a new passion which is writing! If I hadn’t taken up that job, it is quite likely that this blog might not have existed!

But then still I had to pay my bills, and so I took the University Dining job at Fountain Dining Hall. This is the work which paid just enough ( not too much) to cover my monthly expenses. And I was happy because not only I didn’t need to ask my parents for money, but also had gained a confidence in earning, and control over my financial expenses. And the job was pretty simple. All I had to do was stand behind the buffet counter, and help the students in food service. Well, simple isn’t it? But actually, it had much more to it. I not only had to just stand near the buffet counter, but had to stand for almost 3-4 hours per shift. And during that, I had to keep replacing the hot serving food containers, once they were empty. I had to make sure the food didn’t get wasted, by looking if any food wastage happened in any of the serving locations. Then, after the buffet was over, I had to be a part of the team to clean the area near the containers, including the floors and glasses which was followed by moping the floor and cleaning the window pane overlooking the food counter. Now, does it sound simple? I guess not….

But yes, this was pretty much the job. For an engineering student studying in a grad school, this kind of work certainly doesn’t ring any bell? Many of my class colleagues even loathed such kind of work. Their reasoning was why should a grad student need to do physical work, just for the sake of making some more money to pay the bills? Shouldn’t this time be invested in either studying or even learning some skills which might actually be useful in the job after grad school? Yes, this is true. This kind of work certainly does not resonate in the technical field in which I was studying.But then why did I give it a ‘GO’ for doing such a job, which demanded hard work, long hours and even a certain degree of banal routine?

Well, the answer is partly money even though I could have easily asked my parents to send me money, and they would happily obliged to it. But I wanted to earn myself, and stand up on my own legs. I was a 23 year old guy, and the very thought that I will have to ask money for paying my basic food expenses, and rent was unbearable. Also, my tuition was anyways being paid with the loan and parents funding. To add my living expenses to it sounded too much for me. So, I decided to take this job. But also the fact, I wanted to experience something different which I had never experienced before. Because in India, there is no culture of students working part time while studying ( its mostly confined to either IT or BPO). I have never seen an engineering student working in McDonald’s, or even Cafe Coffee Day ( which is India’s Starbucks) while studying. And before coming to USA, I had always been enthused with the American culture which promotes earning while studying, and gives ample opportunities to work part-time and attend classes. Unfortunately, India still does not have that culture ( mainly due to lack of such opportunities for students, surplus of mainstream workforce available to do such kind of work, and family/parents/peers disapproval)

But as I started doing this job, I started seeing a whole new world of catering and food service industry. This is because, usually I had never cared about how much efforts it takes to prepare the food, and to even serve them. But only when I started doing this job, I got to know about the real hard work involved as a team to deliver a fine dining experience. The minute details in food preparation including high standards of cleanliness were to be taken care of. Even standing behind the food counter for long hours, with a smile on my face and responding to students/visitors questions with courtesy wasn’t an easy thing to do. Even more needed was the strong control over desire of eating the good and delicious food which was being kept in front of us at the buffet counter. Ofcourse, we were given the opportunity to eat one meal per every shift, during the break for 15 mins. But still, I remember many of my colleagues discussed how the chicken smelled good, or even the pizza would be tasty to grab on! Maybe, I can write another post on the different foods served and how we wondered what might be prepared the next day!

What did I learn from this job? I would say a lot of things which might not be experienced at a regular desk or IT job. Surely, the first thing is the lots of hard work being put into this job. In this job, I found that helping people is a good thing. When freshman’s used to enter the dining hall, they used to ask so many questions, whether the food had peanuts ( fearing they might be allergic to peanuts), or even what was the name of a particular non-american cuisine, which were offered sometimes, including Indian curry. It is here where I met people from all backgrounds, be it rich or poor, black or white, urban or rural for the first time. I met some of the full time employees, who had been migrated from other countries as refugees such as Egypt, Latin American countries, Vietnam and even Pakistan. I met this old Pakistani couple who worked with the dishes, and who had fled Pakistan and arrived in USA. They talked to me in Hindi, and I was glad to meet someone who spoke Hindi. One of the migrants from Egypt told me that he was a big fan of Amitabh Bachchan, fondly called as ‘Big B’ in Bollywood. I also met an old lady who worked as a cook, and was known for her jokes and hearty laughs. Her witty jokes and laughs used to make all of us laugh and get back to work with cheerful moods. I remember her asking me if I had a girlfriend, for which I had no answer, as I was not dating anyone at that time. I even met many students from other departments in the university, who all worked along with me during morning or evening shifts. Many of them worked just like me to pay their bills, while few of them were actually quite rich, but still preferred to work, to get some work experience. One of the girl ( who was stunningly beautiful) came from a well to do family, yet preferred working in the dining as she was pursuing bachelor’s in food science. Working alongside with a beautiful girl in front of some of the best cuisines, I guess what else do you need in life? Life is beautiful, isn’t it? ….Just kidding…

In this job, I had two managers, one of them was an old white Irishman from upstate New York. He was one of the most calm and compassionate man I met there. He hired me directly without even asking much questions, and never ever criticized me even if I had made some mistakes in the first few weeks. Infact, I had to leave this job after few months, when my coursework became too much too handle. But then after the semester, I went back and asked him if there was any chance he could take me back on the job. And to my surprise, he accepted me immediately. After my graduation, I met him and told that I was leaving the university town. He wished me good luck, and even went ahead to provide me any referral if needed. I never met such a kind-hearted man as my supervisor before. May God bless him good health! The other supervisor was an African-American lady, who also liked me just like the old man. She couldn’t spell my name, and so she used to call me ‘Aby’. After coming to USA, I had abbreviated my name from ‘Abhishek’ to ‘Abhi’. But in this job, it got even further shortened to just ‘Aby’!. Anyways, I liked working with her too, though she was very particular about cleanliness and coming on time to work. But I don’t remember her being ever angry at me during my stint at the job.

Working with both of them taught me a very important lesson, that in this world, all the differences drop if we are kind with each other, and also good at work. I never felt even for a moment any experience of racism, or even hatred being an outsider to the country. They welcomed me, and treated me just like them, but also expected me to do my job well. After all this is what is America is known for. It really doesn’t matter from where you come from, as long as you can work, follow the rules and become a part of it. This diversity in working with different people helped me immensely in my later jobs and career.

Finally, the most important lesson I learnt is that of ‘Dignity of Labor’. That work is work, and no work is small or big. I found that people working in the dining were proud of their work. They never felt anything low about it. Rather, they considered it as an opportunity to provide the best service to the students and visitors coming to the University. I understood the importance of having pride in whatever we do. If we do not take pride in our job or work, how can we expect others to respect us, or even praise us, right? Even though it might not make us earn loads of money, or might not make a great impact on the world ( in Steve Jobs words ‘to make a dent in the universe’ or ‘to change the world’), but surely all work, be it small or big, does contribute to the betterment of the society.

Take pride in our work! And keep learning and doing better at work!

© Abhishek Karadkar and abhiknotes.com, 2021. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Abhishek Karadkar and abhiknotes.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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The other facets of American education

On-campus work is a charming part of American education, unlike the education system in India.

Recently, read an opinion article on ET about “The charm of American education is over“. The author expresses her opinion on how the American education is embroiled in issues such as restriction of student visa extension, reduced employment opportunities after graduation and Trump administration’s myopic approach towards limiting scholars and students from other countries like India and China. I do agree that a lot has changed since 2015, when I started my grad studies, and I can compare how difficult it has become to pursue education in US especially for international students.

Even though the charm of American education might be over considering the enormous employment opportunities students used to have after completing their education. But still, there are many things which stand unique in American education as compared to education in other countries like India. Some of which are obvious such as high quality of education, huge funding opportunities for pursuing a Ph.D, or even the high-tech campus with all the latest infrastructure, lab facilities, digitized library etc.

But I find something more interesting in American education which simply does not exist in India yet. And that is the on-campus work opportunities. Yes, this might sound trivial for a student life, where parents or society in India generally expects students to just study hard, excel in exams and find a job. On-campus jobs or work is not yet a culture in India. But in USA, this is considered a part of education curriculum. Everyone works or atleast prefers to work on-campus for few hours in a week to pay off their rents, food expenses or other living costs. Though international students have no option but to work to reduce the financial load over their family, but even wealthy American kids do work on campus even though there is no real need for them to work just to earn money. This is because working on-campus is considered a part of student life, as a process to become independent, to grow out of school life and transition to a college life. For them, its also a way to become more adjusted to real life, where we need to earn our own bread and butter. I find this very interesting and hence, I became appreciative of this part of American education.

So, when I landed on the university campus, I immediately started looking for on-campus work. I did end up working on couple of things in my two years, and I consider this to be one of the best part of my American education experience. While working as a writer and correspondent for University newspaper, I discovered that I liked writing. I could see how a bunch of college kids were running a newspaper, a radio station on campus and whatever they did was amazing! Later, when I started working for University Dining, I learnt the importance of hard work, because the work in food industry was really strenuous. Serving students with food menu, slicing pizzas, scrubbing floors or washing utensils, certainly demanded a lot of physical work. But all of the people working in the Dining were students and I felt a part of team. Usually, I never would have done such work alone, but when we are with a team of fellow students, it becomes a great team work. After doing that work, I became aware of the food industry, and how much efforts it take to run the dining/catering service.

In this process, I made a lot of friends and contacts. In India, I used to be a shy introvert guy, but after experiencing this work, I became more and more social. I realized that all the differences between people, be it color, gender or race are superficial. I could see girls doing the same physical work as I used to do, which shattered any notion that physical work is only for guys! When working as a note taker for Disability services, I could feel the hardships of ‘specially abled‘ people, and I became more empathized. I also realized how fortunate I am that God has given me a normal physique.

I even had all types of managers, including a young girl studying bachelors ( I was a Masters student) while working in newspaper, and a military vet who was specially abled while working in Disability Services. Then, I had a very humble African American woman as well as an kind old White dude as my managers while working in Dining. All this led to acceptance of all kinds of people. I dropped any artificial ego, or concepts which I had in my mind regarding working under a certain group of people. I had excellent relations with all of them, and they all liked me so much, even though I was neither an American, nor a white or black guy. I was just a brown Indian guy but this never became any obstacle to find the work, or even do my work gracefully. I performed well, and I understood this hidden aspect of universal acceptance for hard work, and impartiality towards any race, color or gender, which exists amongst common Americans, unlike what is portrayed by Trump or his supporters. I came to understand that while working with common Americans, the American Dream still exists and it is only due to selfish governmental policies on visa, or immigration that has corrupted and destroyed the path of American Dream for the non-Americans.

Anyways, hence, on campus work is one of the nicest part of American education, which still does not exist in India. I hope this culture to work while studying, to reduce financial load over parents, and to drop any superficial concepts of lowering of prestige/image while working on-campus starts in India as well in coming future. Because apart from earning money, it really makes us professional in a student life. It makes us become more social as compared to being hidden behind a pile of books. It makes us value time, as both work and study go hand in hand. It makes us understand the importance of hard work, and that no work is small. All work deserves equal dignity and with that we even start appreciating those working in restaurants, or cleaning services etc. In short, on-campus makes us a better person.

Hence, the charm of American education is not over, but just has become difficult to achieve for non-Americans.