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This month I began work as a lift operator at a ski resort in Utah. I maintain the ramps that you ski on to load or unload the lift; manage the buttons that start, stop, and control the speed of the lift; and bump chairs on fixed-grip lifts, meaning I hold back the chair to slow it down for you on lifts where the chair remains at full speed in the loading zone. My job is simple. My life is really simple. When work ends, I stop thinking about it. There is no homework or work outside of work. My headspace is free on my off time. On my days off, I ski, and all of my energy and thought goes towards existing presently in those moments. I love my job and I love what my job enables me to do: ski. I am simply and purely happy. I worry that this happiness is situational and that when I go back to a higher-stress, faster-paced, more real-world environment I will revert back to a more stressed, closed-off, success-oriented version of myself. My environment here has changed me: I am less anxious and stressed, I live entirely in the present, and I have built stronger foundations for friendships and hobbies than ever before by prioritizing them. My goal for this winter is to keep identifying the ways that my environment has changed me and solidify these changes into who I am so I can keep being this better version of myself no matter my environment. I am still figuring out how to accomplish this goal, but I think the answers are consciousness and habit. If I’m aware of how I’m acting and changing, I am in control and can consciously make choices that are in line with who I want to be. Making those positive choices over and over again will make acting on those traits and values habit, which will make those traits and values a part of me with time. My current environment is one of a kind: my colleagues are ski bums, our work attire is Under Armor, we ski on work breaks and days off, and I have boots and a helmet in my backpack instead of books. I am living my dream, but the best part is the change in myself I am seeing when I’m doing what I love all the time. I hope that these positive changes will stick and remind me of this winter for the rest of my life.
Page, AZ: Our drive from Springdale, UT to Page included a stop at the Coral Pink Sand Dunes near Kanab, UT. I had never seen desert sand dunes before and was blown away by them. The state park has sandboards and sand sleds for rent, and we tried one of each. Sand boarding and sledding were incredible ways to experience the dunes up close, and both the board and sled actually worked. Despite having no sort of snowboarding or skateboarding experience, we were able to ride down whole dunes successfully. The sand dunes were a unique and stunning stop on our trip. My one piece of advice for the dunes is watch the weather and avoid going on a windy day. We went on a very windy day, and the sand was brutal whipping in our faces. Wear eye protection and expect to get sand everywhere. Lake Powell, our final stop of the day, was the most unique and stunning lake I’ve ever seen with its red rock backdrop. I’d love to go back in the summer when watersports are possible. We also did the short hike to Horseshoe Bend: on a windy day the sand was brutal, but the view was stunning and totally worth it.
Tusayan, AZ: We stayed in Tusayan while visiting the Grand Canyon. The weather wasn’t ideal this time of year: it snowed heavily on us while we were there, so we weren’t able to see the canyon as much as we had hoped. However, when we did get to see it, the Grand Canyon was absolutely stunning, especially with the coat of snow over the higher regions. We hiked the rim of the canyon and ventured a couple miles into the canyon. Both trails were covered in snow, and the hike into the canyon was particularly slippery at this time of year. The Grand Canyon was definitely the coldest place we visited on our road trip: it was around 18º F when we were in the park. I wouldn’t recommend going as late in the season as we did, but the canyon is a must-see for any traveler.
San Diego, CA: San Diego gave us the perfect change in weather. Temperatures were in the 60s and 70s, and the ocean water was just warm enough to enjoy. I took my first ever surf lesson in Pacific Beach, which I highly recommend doing. Getting up on the board was doable, which made the experience really enjoyable. We also spent lots of time in the beach town of Encinitas, just 30 minutes north of downtown San Diego. Every fish taco we ate in San Diego blew us away- from Oscar’s Mexican Seafood to Fish 101.
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Three Rivers, CA: Sequoia National Park was one of the most stunning places we visited. The size of all trees in the forest made me feel equally small and empowered. General Sherman- the largest tree by volume on Earth- absolutely blew us away, but the fact that this tree was not a freak-of-nature in this forest was the most unbelievable part. Other trees were wider or taller or older than Sherman, and to be surrounded by so many monumental works of nature humbled and shocked me. For a six foot tall person, looking up at General Sherman is the equivalent of a mouse looking up at a six foot tall person. That’s exactly what looking up at those trees felt like.
San Francisco, CA: We balanced city and nature time well on our road trip, and San Francisco was a nice escape to city. We went for a waterside trail run with views of the Golden Gate Bridge one morning. We recommend visiting Chinatown- we had a delicious dim sum dinner one night- and the Castro district for its history and symbolism of LGBTQ+ pride. For ice cream, Salt & Straw was a must, and it doesn’t get better than eating it in one of San Francisco’s many parks with gorgeous city views.
Carson City, NV: We didn’t end up having time to visit Lake Tahoe, but the drive from Carson City to our destination- Park City, UT- was unique and gorgeous. We passed salt flats and drove through Salt Lake City, UT at sunset: the purple sky framing the mountains that completely surround the city was unbelievable.
I never thought I would take or enjoy a road trip: I hate long drives, I don’t like living out of a bag, and there’s nothing I love more than a home cooked meal. The road trip pushed me way out of my comfort zone in many ways, but it was the best experience of my life. I saw what I now know to be some of the most gorgeous places on Earth. I had nothing outside of the trip to stress about and was able to fully immerse myself in and enjoy the trip. I spent every drive looking out the window, taking in the rolling hills of Kansas or the Rocky Mountains or California’s coast. I couldn’t be happier that I jumped on this chance at adventure, and I spent the entire trip in awe, surrounded by some of the most beautiful places on Earth.
I don’t know how to talk about this fall without bringing up mental health. Few people talk about the hard parts of a gap year, but our recent socio-medical-political climate has affected me in personal, unprecedented ways that I want to acknowledge. I’ve felt stuck in place living at home while my friends move onto college. I haven’t made many new friends in Atlanta. I worry that much of the social progress we have made is at risk of being undone. I feel helpless in our current political climate, where chronic lying and gaslighting are acceptable, people’s lives and safety are continually at risk and have become a political issue, and black and brown communities are repeatedly denied justice and equality.
I often feel alone, stuck, or discouraged and am finding ways to channel these feelings into productivity, particularly in the world of politics. Several months ago, in response to the upcoming election, I joined MJ Hegar’s US Senate campaign. Engaging in politics as intensely and frequently as I have on the campaign is exhausting but empowering. I know that all of my efforts- whether it’s calling donors in team finance, cleaning data to meet FEC guidelines in team operations, or drafting emails to send to constituents in team digital- have had an impact in empowering a fair and honest leader. I also have been a part of nonpartisan activities, such as engaging in voter participation efforts through VoteRiders and signing up to be a poll observer with Fair Fight in Atlanta, in a year in which our vote will arguably influence our day-to-day lives more than ever.
One of the best things about my gap year is being able to follow through when I feel called to action. I have the flexibility to act on what’s important to me. Politics is where I want to be involved this fall – for myself and for those whose voices aren’t as easily heard – and my involvement has given me much needed support and energy.
I have worked at Botiwalla, an Indian street food restaurant, in Atlanta’s most famous food hall located in Ponce City Market for the past few months. I have learned a lot from working in a restaurant and wanted to share 11 lessons I’ve learned so far.
Work should not be so serious
- I have learned the difference between being serious at work and taking my work seriously. In taking work seriously, I see that doing my job well requires casualness, calmness, and humor. Taking the time to laugh with a guest or write a nice note on someone’s takeout bag can enhance our guests’ experience. With the pandemic limiting social interaction, we need humor and fun more than ever.
What a squeegee is
- Working in a restaurant has highlighted the differences (and similarities) between what I learned in the classroom and what I’ve learned in the ‘real world’ on my gap year. One difference is what knowledge matters: I could thoroughly explain Gauss’s Law using calculus and physics concepts but could not identify the squeegee in the restaurant when I started. Nobody cares how many AP’s anyone took or where anyone went or goes to school. I am judged on how I treat people and how much of a team player I am, not even on how well I do my job: the staff has my back when I make mistakes on that.
- I have also learned to physically work like I never have before. Who knew there were so many pieces of equipment to clean, store, and cook things in a restaurant. I have mopped and swept and wiped down and carried like never before. I have certainly learned to keep my head down and “put my back into it,” as I’ve been told while mopping.
Avoid easy mistakes
- One member of our staff shared a story about his experience playing the tuba in middle school. He wanted to be the best player in the state and practiced tirelessly every day. One day he complained to his teacher about how he endlessly practiced the hard parts yet still wasn’t the best. His teacher responded by asking him how often he practiced the easy parts, to which his response was hardly ever. He began putting more time into the easier parts, and two years later he became the best tuba player in the state.
- This story reminds us in the restaurant to not overlook the “easy.” We are in the middle of an unprecedented time in the restaurant business and are going to make mistakes on the hard or unknown stuff, like our new takeout-only setup or the food hall’s new COVID-19 protocol. However, we need to be sharp on the easy stuff, like getting orders right or making sure our guests have everything they need, in order to succeed.
Restaurant work is grueling
- Most of our cooks work in at least one other restaurant. In their ‘time off,’ one works at a Southern breakfast restaurant while another works at an upscale burger restaurant down the food hall from us. They work tirelessly and excel at the job that everyone wishes they could do well, which deserves recognition and respect.
How to think for myself
- One of our managers always expects us to know what we want. What music do you want to listen to during setup? What do you want for your staff meal? Do you want to work register or expo tonight? If we don’t know, his response is, “If you don’t know then who knows?” The answer is nobody. He has taught me to think for myself and be more confident in what I want and who I am.
A degree doesn’t define a person
- Every few weeks, our back of house manager, who only has a high school degree, asks me what book I’m reading. We both know the other will be on a new book by then and are eager to hear what the other is reading. It’s easy to assume he wouldn’t enjoy reading: maybe school just wasn’t for him or he always needed to work and never had time for a book. I don’t know much about his past, but I do know that he’s currently reading a collection of creative nonfiction essays about the author’s experience with intersectionality as an Asian-American woman living in Houston.
- Another back of house staff member is a history buff particularly interested in wars and ancient history. He could talk endlessly to me about the Spartans and Athenians or the weapons of World War II. He wanted to become a historian, but couldn’t afford the college tuition. He continues to educate himself about history through conversations and book.
- I have always been surrounded by people with college and postgraduate degrees, but being surrounded by an educationally diverse group of people- both college-educated and not- at the restaurant has allowed me to break down my own stereotypes about what a degree or being smart mean.
An Indian restaurant doesn’t have to sell rice
- Working in a restaurant that sells Indian street food has taught me a lot about my assumptions of India and other countries. Partly due to thinking about America as a “melting pot,” I’ve realized that I often oversimplify other countries’ history, diversity, and culture. Many guests, including some of Indian descent, are disgraced when they find out we are an Indian restaurant that doesn’t sell rice or curries when, in reality, Indian food is so much more than that. I have learned a lot about the diversity of culture, history, and cuisine that influences our restaurant’s food and makes India so complex and unique.
Life happens, and compassion is necessary
- When the pigeons that plague our patio poop in someone’s $12 boozy slushy or someone’s overheated dog needs a cup of water, compassion is necessary. Meeting the needs of customers and even noncustomers– even when it sucks, uses up resources or time, or is petty– is important to maintaining the standards and reputation we pride ourselves on as a company.
Most people are decent
- A small minority of our guests are really rude, but most people show kindness, whether that’s through wearing a mask, tipping, saying “hi” back, speaking to us with respect, or striking up a thoughtful conversation. The pandemic requires that we be more creative in how we build connections, but we need the effort from both ends to do so now more than ever.
Appreciate and cherish the little things
- Front of house staff members are tasked with chores like portioning out our raita, spicy ketchup, or mango lassis into to-go cups for guests. I have cut corners while portioning before and made messes- spilling spicy ketchup everywhere or dropping hundreds of 2oz cups on the ground. I have learned that, to respect the kitchen staff, I have to take the time and effort to handle the food, condiments, or drinks they make with care. Whether it’s the simple syrup (aka sugar water) I use to make drinks or the full meals I package up into takeout bags, I owe the kitchen staff the respect of handling the food that dominates their time and energy with care.
Something about the restaurant makes everyone family
- Working in the restaurant has brought me some of my happiest moments since the pandemic- from making “Mondo burgers” inspired by the movie Good Burgers on a slow Sunday to the constant prank wars that one cook instigates to feasting on cake and laughing together during a staff meeting. Work doesn’t feel like a chore: it feels like the place I come home to, filled with great food and people that make me smile.
Long-term planning during a global pandemic presents challenges. We have all asked ourselves what the world will look like in a month and a year. Will elbow bumps replace handshakes? Will meetings continue on Zoom? Will travel return to normal? There is a lot we don’t know, both about the future and the virus, and trying to plan a year in advance is essentially impossible.
I established my gap year goals from the beginning: travel and develop new perspectives, engage in meaningful local service, and participate in activities I love. I had a set of plans that fulfilled these goals, beginning with an internship at a software company in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam this fall. However, the virus rendered my plans impossible, and I struggled to accept this fact. The next year of my life was completely swept away by the virus, and I was left stunned.
Then something clicked: I realized my initial fall plans were hopeless. That total defeat allowed me to move on and see the opportunity that lay elsewhere. I jumped to action and, knowing I needed money to pay for my gap year, I pursued and got a job at a restaurant serving takeout. I started reaching out to anyone and everyone of interest, from my high school’s volunteer coordinator to politicians around the country. Plenty of my emails went unanswered, and I received many no’s, but the number of people interested in helping me was shocking and a welcome surprise. I pursued every opportunity available and of interest to me. I began to realize that the pandemic gave me the opportunity to reevaluate what is important to me. I had the chance to start over and examine what work would best allow me to achieve my gap year goals. Being limited in location allowed me to see how much I don’t know about Atlanta, where I was born and raised and still live. I plan to support and contribute to my local Atlanta community this fall through service and work. I am getting certified to teach reading through Reading is Essential for All People, or REAP.
I plan to conduct free tutoring sessions for students, particularly for students at an under-served Atlanta elementary school that I have volunteered with in the past. I have worked and will continue to work with their teachers and staff to support the school in the midst of the pandemic.
I am working as a research and teaching assistant to an Emory University instructor teaching healthcare management. I contributed to her business case study about a telehealth company in the pandemic that is in submission for publication in a peer-reviewed magazine.
After about two months of reaching out to MJ Hegar’s team (US Senate candidate in Texas), I now am a remote finance intern on the campaign. Having lots of family in Texas, I see the diverse needs of people within the state and am delighted to support an American hero fighting for the everyday Texan. My plans look nothing like they did five months ago, but I am excited to be involved with and serving communities of importance to me, particularly Atlanta. After countless emails, interviews, and phone calls, I now have a plan that reflects what I want to achieve.
The pandemic has reminded me to embrace the flexibility of a gap year. I am constantly learning and have the freedom to shape my gap year around what I learn, steering myself towards the person I want to be. I anticipate a lot of my ideas about my gap year will change over the course of the year, but I look forward to constantly adapting and uncovering new opportunities.