Reminiscing on past part-time college jobs and full-time adult jobs, and how they make you what you are.
I started working in my late teens and found that I liked it (and the money and independence that came with it). I then grew up to be a workaholic, at least according to the family. Because I started work relatively young, and also because I am your typical Gen Y, I have cycled through a number of pretty wacky jobs.
Here are the first ten of them:
Job #0: Office Clerk
This one is numbered as ‘zero’ because am not entirely sure if it should count. After I completed my SPM (O-Levels equivalent), my father got sick of seeing me bumming around while waiting for my exam results to come out. In an effort to instil good values in his child, he declared that I would henceforth work in his architecture firm.
For RM50 (USD 15) a week, I did odd jobs around the office, like making copies and typing stuff up. I never had to do a coffee run, though. My father liked the idea so much that he made it a tradition for all of my siblings. The brother after me also had a stint in the firm, but the tradition faltered when our third sibling got bundled up and shipped to Egypt before he even completed his exams. It then died a swift death when the turn for our fourth and youngest sibling came around: he simply didn’t show up to work.
Job #1: Vinyl Record Cleaner
I consider this my first official job, as I sought it out of my own free will. I was a first-year international student at Stanford University, in California, USA, and while my scholarship provided sufficient funds to eat and dress decently without embarrassing my country, it was not enough to do fun stuff, like visiting friends in New York City.
There is a tradition of Malaysian students celebrating their first New Year’s Eve in America at the Big Apple, which my friends and I felt we should uphold. While this was easy for my fellow first-year friends in the East Coast to do (as they were within driving distance and also had tons of other Malaysians to carpool with), I had no choice but to fly by my lonely self over from the other side of the continent, and that, ladies and gentlemen, required money.
Luckily, my university made it pretty easy for students to earn money, even international students, and being in California meant we benefitted from the relatively high minimum wage! The job was with the Music Library that needed to archive thousands of old music vinyl records (the massive, obsolete kind that you play using a gramophone).
Yes, these existed once upon a time. Source
They needed someone to wipe all 5,000 discs clean before they go into storage, and I was the answer to their prayers.
Three afternoons a week, after classes or in between classes, you’d find me sitting at the back of the library with a rag in one hand, robotically wiping and flipping discs bigger than my face. It was boring, repetitive work, but also strangely therapeutic. I guess there were worse ways to while away one’s afternoons, and hey, the job paid for my first NYC trip. That New Year’s Eve, Mariah Carey performed at Times Square.
Job #2: Fish Feeder
I found that I really enjoyed earning money, so when I ran out of discs to clean at the Music Library, I went hunting for the next job on campus. I saw an ad asking for help to feed fish in one of the Medical School labs, and immediately applied for the easiest job in the world: throwing fish food into aquariums, how hard could that be?
What I thought the fish tank was like. Source.
I was quickly proven wrong when I walked into the lab. Instead of one large aquarium tank like the one in my imagination, I was looking at shelves and shelves holding rows and rows of small containers, from the floor all the way up to the ceiling. Each container had a fish that needed to be fed, and there were thousands of them, all blinking down at me from their lofty perch.
What the fish tank(s) were really like.
I pumped muscle for each of those mini-tanks! Source.
So instead of dumping a bucket of food once and walking away, I had to climb up ladders and personally squirt food from a bottle into each and every single container. That meant squeezing the bottle thousands of times in one round.
Also, the food did not consist of those neat little pellets you commonly see in pet stores - oh noooooo, the food was made of live, microscopic shrimps that were hatched in a large container and that squirmed around in the liquid while you loaded them into a bottle. One time, I mishandled the hatching container and spilled a bucketful on my own clothes, literally ending up with millions of tiny and very dead shrimps on me.
These. I had these all over me. Source.
It was tiring, icky work, and my right arm got really buff that year from all the bottle-squeezing I did. Easily one of the worst, unglamorous jobs I’ve had so far.
Job #3: Research Assistant
This was my jump into more respectable work. Having advanced into my second year in college and taking on more core science subjects, I got myself a job as a research assistant in one of Stanford’s many labs, helping out with lab work while also carrying out my own experiments.
I enjoyed it so much that I ended up working here longer than any of my other jobs on campus, spanning close to 2 years. The professor and lab coordinator I worked with were wonderful - even when I messed up one of their experiments and ended up killing hundreds of our test subjects from sheer negligence (relax, they were coral polyps, not humans or rats), they simply shrugged and started over.
What I unwittingly and clumsily murdered. Source.
It was in this lab that I learned how to use all of the machines that came straight out of science fiction - how to break down cells, how to separate different proteins, how to analyse microscopic particles… etc. I also witnessed a lot of the behind-the-scenes of research/academia work - how to apply for research grants, how to run a lab, how to ask a question, how to design an experiment to answer that question…etc.
Spoiler alert: I did not end up pursuing academia or research, but I still remain grateful for this experience as it taught me a lot about cultivating an intense curiosity about how the world works. It also ingrained in me the ‘scientific methodology’ of testing, measuring and tweaking that I still benefit from today.
Job #4: Call Centre Fundraiser
One day, in addition to my lab job, classes and extra-curricular activities, I decided to try working at the Stanford Call Centre, where a bunch of students get paid commissions to call and persuade alumni to donate money to the university. Depending on how good you were, you either scored the university a large donation and had your name written up on the wall like the superstar that you were, or you have annoyed people requesting you to remove them from the list.
I discovered very quickly that I was not good at this, and only lasted a few weeks on the job before I quit. Looking back though, I wish I had persevered. Selling is difficult, and involves facing almost constant rejection. But it is also a great opportunity to learn the very important skills of persuasion, empathy and dealing with failure - skills that I severely lacked when I went out into the real world.
Job #5: Camp Counselor
In the summer between my second and third year of college, I decided I wanted to go to Japan. So I researched ways to get myself there, and found a job where I could teach Japanese kids English in exchange for flights, accommodation and meals (rather than money). Good enough for me!
For two months, my team and I traveled all over southern Japan, holding 3-day English camps with Japanese students of various ages. Because it was a ‘camp’, that meant no boring classroom work - instead we were out in the mountains and forests, making art and enacting plays, eating marshmallows over campfires, playing games and having dance parties (all in English, of course). If nothing else, the students learned how to sing YMCA.
I have a lot of fond memories from this job (the kids, the host family, the summer festival, that giant ice-cream sundae and that one karaoke night… then there’s that bit about getting arrested).
I reckon it’s the most fun I’ve had while working. My teammates and I even got the ‘Best Team’ award!
Gangsters in summer yukata. (The boys were unfortunately not included here,
mostly because yukata didn't look good on them)
Job #6: Sexton
Despite how the name sounds, the job has nothing to do with what you’re currently thinking of, but it might still get some of the more conservative people frowning.
My university has as its centrepiece a beautiful church, called the Stanford Memorial Church, where I worked as a sexton.