Guest Post by Laura Rossi Totten and Sam Ferrigno
I suggested that two English majors--Laura Rossi Totten, a former undergraduate assistant who graduated from UConn in 1991, and Samuel Ferrigno, my current assistant, who will get his B.A. in 2012--address the issue of how doing the everyday tasks expected of students who regularly perform work-study duties or hold similar positions might actually benefit them in their work lives after graduation.
I figured that it’s time to let my grown-up students start giving advice about the current workplace to those graduates hoping to enter it. Laura, now principal at Laura Rossi Public Relations, has worked with hundreds of authors, academic as well as trade (I consider my influence a good one); she worked at Penguin, Norton, and other major publishing houses before starting her own firm.
Sam, who has been working with me since the summer, is starting to get nervous about finding a job when he graduates in May. Smart, witty, articulate, energetic, and ambitious, Sam will be fine, I think, but what he needs to hear is how he’s going to get from where he is (working for me in my basement office) to where Laura is (working for herself in her own office).
I suggested that they talk about it. Their exchange is below.
I am happy to be working in my professor’s office, but I’m a little confused about the grunt work. How will doing bottom-feeding, peon tasks lead to a better understanding of my future life as a professional in publishing, or the world of not-for-profits, or, for that matter, clown school?
Surely such noble institutions hire people with a more diversified skill base than “Knows how to Xerox an article”?
Nearly all my responsibilities seem to rely on basic motor skills. For example, I spend time tidying up, answering the phone, dealing with the mail, and typing out passages of documents I could probably find on the Internet but which my boss wants me to copy from her dog-eared personal collection of disintegrating file copies.
Then, of course, there is my favorite high-profile activity: washing the dishes. (It’s true that Prof. Barreca does either buy us lunch or brings it from home—I’ll give her that. We certainly eat well in this office.)
I don’t mean to sound ungrateful. I am thankful for the opportunity to work indoors as well as for the paycheck. I’m happy to be free of “work-study” although I was also grateful for that when I needed it. That Barreca pays me out of her own monies means that she can request the dishes from lunch be washed without irate tax-payers demanding an audit.
But what I can’t figure out, however, is how shredding old letters of recommendation is suitable preparation for a “real job.” Is it? She said you might be able to guide me in this. When I was offered the part-time position to be Barreca’s assistant, my expectations were slightly higher than the sink and went beyond the keyboard.
I know you were once in my position. And although when you were here, the university actually still employed a janitorial staff to pick up the trash rather than telling the faculty it was now their job, I suspect our experiences working for Prof. Barreca are similar. I’m pretty sure you had to do similar remedial tasks every day and I know for a fact we’re still using the same phone; it is from 1989. It should be on Antiques Road Show.
Yet (and this is where I’m hoping you’ll shed some light) you’ve now established a substantial and rewarding career. How? What path led you from THIS work to YOUR work?
While I’ve never thought of examining--specifically--how working in Barreca’s office as an assistant back in the late-80s (were you even born?) was a dress rehearsal for my post-university life and how it prepared me to found my own successful business as an independent publicist, it’s sort of fun to think about how one thing led to another. And I’m delighted to help anybody find the hidden gifts in the seemingly mundane tasks of filing and Xeroxing, since that’s how anybody (anybody with a degree in the Humanities, anyway!) usually starts out.
So, at the risk of sounding like a know-it-all, here’s my best advice in terms of making the work you’re doing now make sense in terms of your professional life:
1. Transcribing voicemail messages, typing memos, creating schedules, booking travel arrangements, making phone calls, fetching this or that, filing, and (gasp) dictation -- these administrative tasks are the foundation of most positions. Do them well and without complaining.
2. The only answer to your employer’s reasonable request: an enthusiastic YES! (There’s no such thing as too much enthusiasm, although Gina might get suspicious if you start cheering when asked to deal with the trash.)
3. Don’t take your time at the keyboard lightly. Read as you type; she’s usually asking you to enter some great texts. Your writing can improve if you spend time in the company of good prose. Great sentence structure can open doors. Try to avoid mistakes--even small ones. Proof that email you send out under your name; you never know who’ll read it.
4. Be flexible in terms of your schedule. If you can, stay later than usual to finish a job if there’s a deadline (but never sacrifice your own work for classes--Barreca still makes that clear, right?) and if you need time off, ask for it in advance if possible.
5. Be reliable when it comes to your own pace (and level) of work; consistency is a virtue.
6. Do not pretend or posture--swallow your pride and ask a lot of questions especially about complicated computer programs, filing systems, or what something means.
8. You may be in a cluttered windowless office in the middle of cow country--but this position is real and lays the foundation for all that is to come … so treat it that way.
I admit that it was hard for me to see my future career in my late teens/early 20s as I called The New York Times and Ms. magazine to request tear sheets, but looking back to that bookish office I know now that is where my publishing career quietly started.
Be polite to EVERYONE you meet--the voice on the phone may recommend you for a job, become your new friend, or in some other unexpected way, make your day. You never know, right? Apart from the paycheck, I usually came away from that office with a story, a piece of advice, and a snack. And then, one day, I came away with a letter of introduction that lead to my first job.
Let me know how I can help, Sam, OK? Thanks for asking.