In May 0f 2010, I graduated with my Bachelors of Fine Arts in Graphic Design, and like most recent college graduates, had no idea what I was going to do with my life. I was fortunate enough to keep my student job over the summer at the Spurlock Museum, but the idea of finding a full-time, grown-up “real” job was daunting. I sent out a few resumes, and had a few unsuccessful interviews, but by August of 2010, my choice was to either move back home to the isolation of my parents’ farm or to take a job as a server (waitress) at the local Cracker Barrel for the freedom of living on my own.

When I told my parents that I was going to stay in Champaign to work as a server, they weren’t exactly thrilled. I felt a little guilty knowing that all that recently acquired academic knowledge of Gaudi and Yoruba culture would come of little use when announcing the daily meatloaf special. At 22 years old, this was the first time in my life that I had not been in school. However, I did not realize just how much I could learn outside of the cozy bubble of University life.

For one thing, spending hours drawing and moving pixels around on a screen as a graphic artist doesn’t exactly teach you social skills necessary for “the real world,” especially if you’re already naturally shy. I knew that if I waited tables, I would be faced with confrontations and face-to-face communications on a daily basis. And because of these challenges, I was able to learn and grow so much more beyond the brick walls of the school setting.

Here’s what I learned from working as a waitress:

1. How to communicate with people

During my first few weeks of waiting tables, I was extremely, extremely shy. But I quickly learned that timidness and failing to ask questions would only mean more mistakes on my part, resulting in missed connections with coworkers and misunderstandings with customers. When the restaurant was really busy, guests would have to wait, and sometimes mistakes would happen. I learned, however, that if I took the time to explain to my customers the reason for any delays or mistakes, they were usually understanding or at least appreciative of the explanation. By clearly communicating with my coworkers, too, I was able to function as part of a team, allowing us to build respect and appreciation for one another.

2. How to have a strong team

At Cracker Barrel, my coworkers were kind and motivational, and as a result, we formed a strong sense of teamwork. During each shift, we were each responsible for our own designated tables, but we made sure to help each other out and to deliver food to customers outside of our own designated sections. If any of the servers were feeling overwhelmed or had too many tables, we would talk to each other and quickly form a plan to help out the overwhelmed server, ensuring that they were able to do their job and keep their customers happy. Our sense of teamwork made for a faster, more efficient system, while building bonds between our coworkers and ensuring the respect of our customers.

3. How to ask for help

Learning to ask for help is something that took me quite a while to learn. Having grown up on a farm and with a society that praised individual achievements, I used to think that doing things on your own (without help) was a sign of strength.

I quickly learned, however, that not asking for help while waiting tables was a sure equation for unnecessary stress and pissed-off customers! With such a strong sense of teamwork among the other servers too, I learned that it made no sense not to ask for help. Whenever I had too many tables or needy customers, I embraced a sense of humility and asked help from my coworkers, ultimately saving time and keeping customers and coworkers happy.

4. How to speak Spanish

Before waiting tables, the majority of my social and academic interactions were with mostly white, middle-class Americans who shared similar life experiences to me. Working at Cracker Barrel was the first time that I had ever truly communicated with any native Spanish speakers. Many of my coworkers were from Mexico, Guatemala, Ecuador, and other parts of South America.

I quickly learned to love my warm, welcoming coworkers from the other side of the Americas. I made friends with the jovial dishwasher, David, who insisted (with his big, toothy grin) that I learn a new Spanish word each day. Though I could only speak a few words, I felt the neurons lighting up in my brain, and a sense of accomplishment learning new words and beginning to connect with people who I learned really weren’t all that different from me. I fell in love with the warm personalities, determination, and kindness of my Spanish-speaking coworkers, and as a result am still continuing to improve my Spanish to keep in contact with my friends and make new friends along the way.

5. How to hustle

When I first started waiting tables, I could not believe the speed at which the other servers took food orders and ran about the restaurant. Speed had never been a strength of mine, but I quickly learned to make it so. I realized that by moving fast and managing time, I could provide better help to my coworkers and customers. Having a sense of urgency is something that has definitely helped me in my current career as a graphic designer as well; learning keyboard shortcuts and other time-saving processes, so that at the end of the day I can have time for what really matters 🙂

6. How to be grateful

As a server, I was often saying thank you throughout the day; to your coworkers for helping me during busy times, to mischievous old ladies who told me jokes and made the day worthwhile, to kind customers who swapped stories and gave generous tips.

As a matter of fact, living off tips was not an easy way of life. During those uncertain years after college, every little bit counted, and I learned to appreciate every dollar, every dime. I learned too that many of my coworkers had many more struggles than me. They were people of all ages and backgrounds, some college graduates lost in the world like myself, some young, single mothers, and some immigrants supporting families in other countries.

I learned from their stories and their struggles, and realized how fortunate I was to have been able to receive an education. I saw unbelievable courage and determination in a middle-aged mother who had spent her early years as an alcoholic. I felt honored to be in her presence with her contagious smile and to see her compassion continuing to help other alcoholics. I worked with immigrants who spoke little English, but always wore a smile on their face, and treated me like family. I worked with other students or recent graduates who balanced work and classes in hopes for a brighter future.

All of these people that I met while working as a server truly changed my life. From them I learned real-life struggles, compassion, and teamwork. Pushing pixels around as a graphic designer and reciting art history knowledge can only get you so far. It is because of the honest, human interactions that I had waiting tables, that truly helped me to grow as a person at work and in life.

Photo credit: Maria Antonieta Navarro Sindelar • From left to right: My Cracker Barrel coworkers Erin, Mike, and myself attending a benefit baby shower hosted by our dear friend and fellow Cracker Barrel coworker, Cathy