Atiqah Nadiah Zailani
The First 10 Jobs
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.
The Stanford Memorial Church - our college entrance ceremony was held here too. Source.
A sexton is someone in charge of property upkeep and other menial duties (including digging graves), so at any one point, you’d find me counting candles, cleaning the seats, handing out programme books and even babysitting the kids that the churchgoers bring along with them. Luckily for me, digging graves was not part of my to-do list.
It may seem weird for a Muslim girl to be working in a church, but I actually enjoyed the experience and thought nothing of it (the churchgoers thought it was pretty cool, actually). Though I never did get to join the sermons as I was always stationed outside the church on Sundays (either as an usher or a babysitter), I learned a little bit about the religion, and it’s fair to say that the churchgoers learned a little from me too in the various short interactions we exchanged.
I credit this job for sparking my interest in inter-religious studies - I would later find myself participating in inter-religious debates and discussions held by the university’s Office of Religious Studies - and it is an interest that I have continued to pursue till today.
Job #7: Teaching Assistant
Right after graduation, I worked for another short summer programme for gifted youth, this time in Beijing, China. This was shortly after the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Unlike the Japan one, this summer camp took place in classrooms with intermittent field trips, and instead of English, I helped teach Biotechnology.
The programme lasted for approximately two months, and all I could remember was how hot and humid Beijing was.
Job #8: Environmental Educator
I did Biological Sciences in college, with a particular focus on Ecology & Conservation, and wanted to be the next Jane Goodall or David Suzuki. So while my peers applied to the Googles, Facebooks and McKinseys of the world, I went looking for jobs in the jungles and oceans.
I was accepted into an environmental education centre. It wasn’t in a jungle, but it was on one of the many islands on the coast of North Carolina. Despite all the jobs I’ve held previously, I consider this one to be my ‘First Real Job’.
The centre was attached to a small resort, and we got a range of visitors from schoolchildren to university professors coming over to learn about nature. Ditching the classroom (yassss!), our lessons took place outside, in the forest, next to the pond, right on the beach, or on the dock. Sometimes dolphins would swim by and that’s when the class got really crazy.
Part of the job was getting scolded by the resident hawk.
My accommodation was right by the beach, so naturally I spent a lot of time there, doing plenty of sunset walks and stargazing in my free time. I told a colleague that I had never successfully flown a kite before, and he bought me an amazing snake-kite that I flew beautifully (though to be honest, with the kind of winds that we get by the beach, it would be impossible for the kite to not fly). Another colleague and I went kayaking all the way from the island to the mainland (approximately 3 km of shifting water), only to find ourselves fighting uselessly against the wind on our return trip. My colleague, being the superwoman she is, ended up swimming and dragging the kayak (with me in it) all the way back.
I made a lot of interesting memories during this job, and to this day, I refer to this period as ‘My Beach Life’.
Job #9: Civil Servant
Right when I was finishing up my contract at the environmental education centre, I received a letter from the Government requesting me to report for duty. As a recipient of a scholarship, I was duty-bound to serve my benefactor for a number of years, so I dutifully moved back home after 5 years of being away.
I was placed under the Prime Minister’s Department. My boss and colleagues were incredibly nice and went easy on me, but am not going to lie: it was quite an adjustment. From having worked entirely outdoors to being put in a small cubicle in a windowless room for hours on end, I definitely struggled.
The work didn’t relate very much to what I had studied and trained for, and in an effort to get back on track with my environmental work, I contacted the heads of all the relevant Ministries within the Government that were responsible for the natural resources within the country.
Apparently, it’s unthinkable for a small fry to be emailing the big bosses so brazenly, but well, living in America changed me… Even with that breach of etiquette, one person responded and agreed to meet with me. After approving my resume and confirming the suitability of my skill set to his division, he then gently broke the news to me: “I’d love to have you, but I can’t - it’s very cumbersome to shift people around in the Government, what with all the rules and regulations. Just make do with the situation and continue living patiently.”
Unfortunately, patience has never been my strongest suit, and it didn’t make sense to me that I couldn’t do a job I was imminently suited for because of some red tape. So my friends and I started campaigning against the Government.
Job #10: Executive / Assistant Manager
It’s a long story, but my frustrations with how human resources were managed within the Government landed me into a new organisation tasked to fix the human resources problem within the country as a whole. And this, ladies & gentlemen, was my slap-in-the-face introduction to how Governments work (or don’t work?) and how insanely complex it is to run a country.
The team remains, to this day, as one of the best and most enjoyable group of people I’ve had the privilege of working with, and I find myself seeking the same group dynamics everywhere I go. I was one of the earliest and youngest to join the company, and I grew alongside it. You could even say the company brought me up, professionally, and like a mother, it taught me most of the things I know today.
The lessons included how to prank people - I came back to office one day to find that my entire desk
(located by the premium window corner with a great view) had gone missing, and a poor substitute waiting in exchange.
It’s interesting to see the trajectory of one's career - I didn’t go down the path of Jane Goodall or David Suzuki as I thought I would when I graduated from college, and I never thought I’d end up where I am. Of course, one of the first lessons the real world teaches you is that life never quite goes the way you thought it would.
Still, I like where I have come to. I’ve gone on to other jobs since the 10th one, and while the jobs I’ve held have varied in length and scope, all contributed in shaping me to be the person I currently am (for better or for worse!).
To all of my ex-colleagues (including all the fish in the medical lab), thank you for putting up with me, and thank you for the lessons and the memories. May our paths continue to cross both professionally and personally in the years to come, if they haven’t already!
What about you? Where have your first ten jobs taken you?