What are your summer plans?
The question’s been floating around dining halls and classrooms for a few weeks now, slowly and stealthily infiltrating its way into those conversations that necessitate small talk. It’s an innocent question, especially for those who have booked flights, confirmed internships, or received job offers. But to those without concrete plans, to those who have missed deadlines or didn’t get the offers or acceptances they hoped for, that question is bound to cause a little anxiety: it’s a reminder that the end of the semester is fast approaching. Summer’s right around the corner—What are you going to do?
When I started planning my summer, I was overwhelmed by the sheer amount of opportunities Harvard had to offer. Teaching, traveling, interning, researching—for the first time in three years, I had the chance to do something besides working in fast food. Browsing the seemingly endless options felt almost like a betrayal to the restaurant in which I’d spent so much time. I halfheartedly submitted applications to internships I was barely interested in and would later get rejected from, conflicted by the opportunity to do virtually anything I wanted and an irrational desire to return to making sandwiches. When I left that job last August, I never would’ve expected to miss it.
I know it sounds crazy, but if you’re still trying to decide how to spend your summer, I recommend fast food.
Seriously: I owe a lot to that job. It afforded me the savings that now pay my tuition, and it inspired the essay that got me into Harvard (true story—I wrote about a chicken sandwich). But, perhaps more importantly, it taught me life skills and values that I probably wouldn’t have learned at such a young age. I left a better person, wizened to the ways of the real world—or at least the world beyond the coddling walls of high school. There’s something truly valuable about working long hours for minimum wage.
Fast food will teach you so much. First, you’ll learn humility. You’ll feel just the slightest bit degraded wearing a nametag that says “Sandwich Artist.” Every time you catch a glimpse of yourself in a stainless steel appliance, you will cringe at your garish matching visor and polo (although you will be given many polos, none will be in your size). Your work appearance will be a great ego check.
You’ll learn to be patient. When the line of customers is out the door, the 25 seconds it takes to toast a sandwich is an absolute eternity. All eyes will be on you. Annoyance will rumble through the ever-growing line of customers; you will be blamed for being unable to condense time. You’re not allowed to show even a flicker of frustration, though, or the customer feedback surveys will be brutal.
Fast food is a great lesson in anger management. You will get yelled at, and frequently. People will insult your intelligence, if only because you work in fast food (also a good ego check). You will want to yell right back, but all you’re allowed to do is muster a fake smile. Later you will take out your anger on trash bags by throwing them into the dumpster a little more aggressively than usual.
You’ll learn to multitask. One customer is asking you for an extra packet of mayonnaise, one is trying to pay for his sandwich, one is telling you that the toilet is clogged. The oven, toaster, and microwave are all beeping, the dish water is running over, you just ran out of chocolate chip cookies, your coworker has mysteriously disappeared, and an entire high school football team just walked in the door. After a while, though, this won’t scare you anymore.
Finally, you’ll become grateful. At the end of the day, you will relish the feeling of finally sitting down in your car, alone, in the quiet. Your clothes are covered in various sticky sauces and rogue pieces of lettuce; after a few weeks, your car will begin to smell like a much more stale version of the restaurant you work in. But there’s something very satisfying about being able to put your feet up for the first time after a long, demanding workday, and something even more satisfying about opening up a paycheck you worked very, very hard for. It won’t be a huge check, of course, but you will treasure it.
These are only a few of the skills I learned from that job. I look back now and wonder at how much I grew in an environment I expected nothing of, but I guess that’s the beauty—if you can call it that—of fast food. I really encourage you to give it a try for the summer. You’ll be surprised that you can learn all this from simply making sandwiches, flipping burgers, or stuffing a taco, and these skills will benefit you both as now a student and later in a future career.
Fast food helped get me here, and it helped make me who I am. Give it a try this summer—it might just change your life, too.
Emilee A. Hackney ’20 is an English concentrator living in Adams House. Her column appears on alternate Thursdays.