Tandra K. Haycraft
College of Notre Dame of Maryland
Let's face it -- there aren't a whole lot of uber-desirable job options for college students. The current economy, a student's weird availability and a lack of experience can mean sometimes only the basest jobs are out there for the taking. Don't get discouraged, though -- any job can teach you a lot and give you an opening into your desired career.
I got my first job during my freshman year of college. I had federal work-study job and worked for 10 hours a week in the graduate admissions office. I filed, a lot. When I wasn't filing, I was making copies. If I wasn't doing either, which usually only happened Friday afternoons, I was there to answer the phone and direct prospective students to the right place for information sessions. Needless to say, it was pretty boring. I quit after two semesters.
At the beginning of my sophomore year, I moved to another campus job, at the information technology help desk. I hadn't thought that my filing job would get me anywhere besides intense boredom and a headache, but, in fact, it was a boost. I had learned to use an industrial copy machine, change toner in laser printers, clear jams in the equipment, and work with a multi-line phone. Being able to tell my trainer that I already knew these basic skills was a boost. Being a self-starter was a necessity as a filer, and a plus as a help desk assistant. Paying attention to how technicians solved some of the most common technology problems, earning a reputation as being motivated and friendly, and volunteering for special projects eventually moved me farther up to working directly with one of the technicians.
I won't lie -- it's not all wonderful. I still get paid minimum wage, my workload has doubled, and it's often thankless or boring work (sometimes both). But it isn't a dead-end job from which I'm only getting a paycheck.
To use a job as an opening into a career, the most important thing to do is to pay attention and learn everything you can. You never know what skill sets employers will want from you, or what they'll be interested in seeing in their applicants. At the end of every semester, my direct boss has me sit down and design the work schedule for his group of student workers for the coming weeks. If you've ever had to do this, you probably know it can be one of the most frustrating and tedious tasks ever.
Having to do it, though, forced me to learn several things -- like how to be organized, for one. Also, how to compromise in a group -- no one wants those hours, so you have to find a way to balance fairly and give everyone a little bit of what they want. I also had to learn to write in a professional manner when I composed emails asking for availability, and how to work with difficult people without being unprofessional or losing my temper.
Organization, patience, compromise, and a few technical skills, as well as the ability to properly construct a sentence, will be vital skills employers are going to be searching for in their applicants. Being able and willing to learn from those higher up than you is always a plus. Learning to show enthusiasm and motivation for even the most boring tasks will show your employers you're flexible and easy to work with. Developing a good rapport with your current employers will give you a leg up when you need references for more serious job applications.
That ability to write clear, concise emails and showing self-taught knowledge of the Microsoft Office suite landed me another great opportunity -- my boss recently asked me to write a set of instructions on how to use the email system for new students. I see this as practice for being a technical writer, the job I really want to get into.