ISABELLE (Cafe Assistant, 2020 - 2021)

ISABELLE (Cafe Assistant, 2020 - 2021)

Written as an admission essay for Yale-NUS.

**names have been changed

 

Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.

 

“So you’re ‘normal’?” 

I laugh awkwardly and duck my head in a motion that vaguely resembles a nod.  The bluntness of the question catches me off guard, and I gratefully spy a customer’s empty plate that requires clearing, mumbling an excuse and making a quick escape from the conversation.

I work in a social enterprise multi-concept store.  Each time I share this fact, it is met with either praise of my ‘nobility’, or disapproval of my lack of pursuit of more ‘CV-worthy’ internships.  Even as I now feel deeply uncomfortable whenever I receive these responses, I am ashamed to admit that such sentiments once came instinctively to me. 

I first entered into this job with fiery energy and determination.  During my job interview, my boss emphasised that it was going to be a tough journey - I had to be prepared not just for the physical exhaustion of the food and beverage industry, but for the emotional exhaustion knowing that I would have to work extra hard to fill in for my colleagues.  But I was convinced with blind idealism that I was ready to take on anything thrown my way, ready to help my colleagues. 

I now look back on my initial arrogance with disappointment and distaste.  This essay question asks for a single event that proved to be a pivotal turning point in my personal growth, but I find myself struggling to pinpoint a single moment.  Rather, it was in my daily interactions with my colleagues that I gradually found myself so deeply moved by their stories that my personal perspectives shifted.  

I watched in terrified silence as Lisa was reduced to almost child-like begging under the force of an OCD attack; I was stunned at the intensity of guilt that Amy, at just the same age as me, felt - the ease with which she sinks back into days of sick leave and depressive episodes following the most forgivable of customer service mistakes; I heard the worry in my boss’ voice as he checked on me repeatedly to ask if I “regret joining them”, recounting stories of workers who began with fiery passion, only to disappear with sudden resignations. 

I was only beginning to understand snippets of the daily battles they fight within themselves.  It was this realisation that knocked me off my high horse.  Not only am I continually at the receiving end of my colleagues’ patience and forgiveness as I learn the ropes and make mistakes, but I am constantly learning from the strength required of my colleagues in handling the smallest of tasks. It is these personal interactions with my colleagues that I am reminded of every time I doubt my lack of more ‘CV-worthy’ internships.  As we share meals and personal stories, laugh together as Kaylee, a lady with down syndrome, dances enthusiastically, poke fun at Aaron, a boy with Aspergers’ and ADHD, and his inability to remember our names, I am humbled.  There have been days that were exhausting, filled with frustration and tears.  Yet, it is undeniable that this journey has privileged me to share in the personal struggles of those who are marginalised, something that few internships could ever offer.  With every laugh and story shared, I grow increasingly determined to promote more equal opportunity workplaces as I go forth beyond University, armed with the stories of my colleagues.

As I write my essay with the borrowed stories of my colleagues, I can only hope that I have done their struggles justice in my representation of them.  The past few months have taught me empathy and the greater importance of everyday understanding over sudden life-changing improvements that I first envisioned myself bringing into their lives, nurturing in me a greater respect for those that I work with.  I do not merely work in a social enterprise - I work in a place founded on love and compassion, built on mutual respect and camaraderie.


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