10 Things I Learned in My First Week of Work

Chocolate-covered strawberries = another reason why I have the best job.

Rebecca Cao

Note: this post is reprinted with permission from rebeccacao.com. Rebecca is one of our former interns.

When I first decided to take a gap year, I thought I knew exactly what I would be doing. Either a Fulbright or Princeton in Asia scholarship, one that would take me overseas and thousands of miles away from Ann Arbor. I didn’t allow myself to consider the possibility that both would reject me. Okay, well maybe my parents forced me to consider it briefly. Even then, however, I was confident that I would find a nice-paying yearlong position in NYC or DC or even Paris. When my plans started unraveling one by one, my trepidation grew. What if I couldn’t find anything to do for an entire year? The workaholic in me blanched. What if, because I didn’t have the prestige of Fulbright or PiA attached to my name, my law school application failed? The overachiever in me stewed. What if, because I made a mistake in my applications, it prevented me from having a once-in-a-lifetime experience? The idealist in me mulled.

My decision to stay in Ann Arbor was less a decision than a consequence. After applying to positions all over the globe, most in the nonprofit legal field, I realized that these jobs were 1) far and few between and 2) highly competitive. Less than a week after I emailed MIRC about internship opportunities, however, my now supervisor responded. He said that they were always looking for interns, and that I should come in for an interview. At first, I was skeptical. This was just too good to be true — their website stated that they only looked for law students for interns. During the interview, he asked me more questions about my schedule than my experience. I’m pretty sure he barely glanced at my resume. Just like that, I was hired.

Then, I proceeded to spend a month visiting various friends and family around the world. I had no idea what awaited me upon my return. On Tuesday, July 8th, I got up after a less-than-ideal night of sleep, gave myself a pep talk, and walked over to Huron Street. This past week, I had my first full week of work. It was more challenging, rewarding, inspiring, fulfilling, and interesting than I could ever have predicted. Though I still have a lot to learn, I’m starting to realize why taking a gap year is so important. And I wanted to share all the things I’m learning with you.

10 Things I Learned in my First Week

  1. How to operate a phone. All you older people can laugh at me now. It’s been a while since I used a phone with an actual cord and receiver. Apart from technical issues, I’ve always dreaded talking to people over the phone. I stutter, I’m awkward, and I forget what I wanted to talk about. After answering the phone dozens of times a day and speaking to people in formal Spanish and French, however, I’m just relieved when I can begin with a simple, “Hi, Michigan Immigrant Rights Center.”
  2. How to operate a copy/fax machine. Similar to the dilemma above, I’ve always had an irrational fear of copy/fax machines. Seriously, I think they will eat me or give me cancer, something like that. Unfortunately for me, I’ve had to get over this phobia pronto, as everything we mail in our office must be copied and stored in the client’s file.
  3. Every question on the N-400 in English, Spanish, and French. This is the naturalization form and it’s 21 pages long. My favorite question is 13A, especially the WTF faces it always gets from the client: “Between March 23, 1933 and May 8, 1945, did you work for or associate with in any way with the Nazi government of Germany?”
  4. That I’m okay with Spanish and French. I was terrified that my language skills wouldn’t hold up in daily conversation or on-the-spot interpretation, but I’ve fared better than I thought. I still have a long way to go, but I feel proud to be able to translate entire legal documents on the fly.
  5. That abuse doesn’t discriminate. Many of our clients seek our guidance because they are trapped in domestic violence situations. Sometimes, they are women. Sometimes, they are men. Sometimes, they are old. Sometimes, they are young, younger than me.
  6. That citizenship is a huge privilege. Many of us born in the United States take our American citizenship for granted, but it is such a privilege that we didn’t earn. So many people around the world would give anything for that status. Lack of citizenship makes it impossible for people to work, to see their families, to escape totalitarian regimes.
  7. That marriage is a big deal. Legally, I mean. Just looking through divorce and child custody agreements makes me think twice about getting married. No matter what you do from the moment you are married, like file for a tax return or apply for naturalization, you are bonded to your spouse. There’s even a question on the N-400 that deals with your spouse’s prior spouses. You have to know their date of births, immigration status, date of marriage. It’s absolutely insane, especially for a client who isn’t in contact with her spouse because he was abusive to her.
  8. What I want in a job. I know now, more than ever, what I’m looking for in a future career/job. I always knew that academia wasn’t for me; it’s too abstract and not sufficiently hands-on. I like to see immediate results and work directly with the people I’m helping. Moreover, I want to look around at my colleagues and realize that everyone is working for the right reasons — not for money or prestige, but for passion and the desire to change the world.
  9. That I’m definitely going to law school. You might wonder why I’d even doubt this, as I’ve already taken the LSAT and started my applications. But I’ve always been a fickle person, and I left room for myself to change my mind. Now, I’m more sure than ever than a legal education is necessary for me to make the kind of impact I want to in society. After talking to several people in law school, I’m hopeful that I’ll enjoy the process as well as the result.
  10. That my life is good. I’m not trying to brag or anything. Happiness is relative, after all. But working with under-privileged people every day makes me feel so, so lucky for the life that I have. They remind me of what really matters in life — being safe and being with the people you love.

In short, I couldn’t be happier with my job. I’m excited to get to the office every day and I couldn’t think of a better place to spend my gap year. Things really do work out for the best.

Did you take a gap year? How did starting you first job change your perspective?