Moving on. Part of the tuition agreement at my university was this thing called work-study. It’s where, in exchange for 15 hours a week, a portion of your tuition is paid. Like, I didn’t get to keep the money because it went right back to the finance office. My job during my first year of college? Something called “Special Projects.” It’s one of these all-purpose jobs they give freshmen to tease out what we might be good at. Each day I reported to work and was sent out to do some random “special project”. Once it was a multi-week gig helping to edit a film. Another time it was weeks and weeks of re-painting all the light poles brown on campus. Yet another time I filed papers in the Registrar’s Office for a good long while. That type thing.
Needless to say my stash of cash from the Red-themed Lobster place ran out pretty fast and even though I was totally working on campus, I went and got another job off campus. So in addition to taking 15 hours of classes, performing work study for 15 hours, I also got a part time job at the Galleria Mall at a children’s clothing store for like 15-20 hours per week. (When did I study?) It was totally insane when I look back on it.
The children’s clothing store was a fascinating place to work if you’re into the anthropology of the extremely wealthy. It was a very high-end store and since we were at the famed Galleria mall, we had these wealthy families literally fly into the nearby private airport, take a car over and buy thousands and thousands of dollars of clothes for their children. It took a while to get used to because, if I’m honest even all these years later, it was astonishingly excessive in light of how quickly children outgrow clothing. Blessedly I got a discount working there and was encouraged to buy my work clothes from the corresponding women’s version of the chain. It was a decent gig I suppose and I made commission so wasn’t too vocal with my judgemental observations.
The summer between freshman and sophomore year I went back to West Texas, Lubbock this time, to live with my maternal grandmother. I waited tables again at the Red-themed-Lobster place. They hired me on the spot because I had already been trained in another restaurant. I made many close friends that summer and again, I built up my stockpile of cash. I was moving to Europe for the fall semester of my Sophomore year. It’s a long story that I don’t really want to get into but I was essentially on my own at this point. I had declared myself financially independent from both sets of my parents so that I would qualify for special loans and grants and so that they couldn’t “claim” me on their taxes. I was hellbent on going to live in Rome and ultimately getting my degree. I literally didn’t let anything stop me. Not even my parents!
And don’t you know, even though I was living just outside Rome, I still had to do the dang work-study thing to offset my tuition. This particular semester’s job was really cool though. I worked in the campus cappuccino bar and learned to make all the fancy coffee drinks. I got to travel all over Europe that semester and have totally amazing memories of long haul Eurail train rides, epic Alpine-Roman-Germanic-French-Greek beauty, art museums, youth hostels and so much more.
When I got home from this life-changing semester abroad, it was more work study - but this time I got to work as the school yearbook photographer. My best school friend Yvonne saw some of my photos from our European semester together and promptly recruited me. She could see that I had a good eye for framing, composition and content. I didn’t give those things much thought until she pointed them out to me and then I was like “Oh, I am a pretty good photographer, aren’t I? Wow! I had no idea.”
I shot university events, headshots, campus life and so much more. Pretty much whatever the yearbook editor told me to cover, I would shoot. And because it was a school job, I could use the fancy yearbook camera whenever I wanted for personal projects and I even got to learn to print in the campus darkroom. I loved that job and did it for my final two years of college. I totally fell in love with black and white photography, specifically processing film and darkroom printing. (My mother and step-father even gave me a full darkroom set up as my graduation gift and I’d go on to print for over a decade using that equipment in my home. I still have it but it’s all in the attic at this point. Paper and chemical scarcity have curtailed modern efforts to process and print my own work.)
The summer between my sophomore and junior year was its own special magic. I couldn’t bear the thought of going back to West Texas and living with my grandmother again so I got creative. My dear college pal Yvonne (same one I’d also backpacked Europe with) told me about opportunities at Yosemite National Park. How you could get a park concession job, rent a tent and live your summer that way earning money. So what did I do? (This is pre-internet, mind you.) I literally called 411 information for Yosemite National Park in California. When I called them, they told me I actually needed to call the concession company that the National Park Service contracts with. I did that and then they mailed me an application to my dorm. I filled it out and mailed it back. A few weeks later I was informed by mail how to claim my job, when to arrive and basically what to expect. Did I mention the whole exchange was by mail? Totally astonishing, in hindsight.
I couldn’t believe my good fortune! I was moving to Yosemite National Park for the summer instead of Lubbock! Better yet, another dear college friend Amy had also applied and been accepted and so she and I quickly began making plans. Traveling to Yosemite with a literal trunk full of things needed for a whole summer was quite the adventure. We bought plane tickets to San Francisco and then we took a cab to the train station and slept outside overnight with all the homeless people. We boarded a train early the next morning for Merced, where we picked up a Greyhound bus that would take us into the park and right to the Human Resources tent.
Our work assignments were straightforward and we were assigned a fairly large shared tent to sleep in. It had a wooden floor with a heavy canvas top. Two cots. And that was basically it. Fortunately we were near the community kitchen for staffers and the women’s bath house. We lived in one of the many strategically located staff camps in the park called “The Terrace” for the way it terraced up the mountainside looming over Curry Village. Truly a prime location in the park and perfect for our Curry Village based jobs.
Amy worked in Housekeeping and I worked in the Camp Curry Coffee shop. I’d rise each morning at 4am, roll out of bed, roll a joint and smoke it during my 5 minute commute to the coffee shop. The team had about an hour to brew coffee and set up before the hard core hikers arrived. And this place was slammed the moment we opened the doors! We made coffee drinks, served pastries and more to a wide variety of park goers. By 9am it was time for my lunch break and by noon each day I was off work for the day. I spent my afternoons napping, especially up by Vernal Falls. I’d swim in the Merced river almost daily and never really felt the need to shower. In fact, I think I only took like three showers that whole summer. I’d cook in the kitchen using groceries I bought in the Yosemite grocery store. Being a vegetarian was effortless in this environment and I learned so so so much from other park employees about how to eat well and cook vegetarian. I took time off here and there and enjoyed several challenging, multi-day hikes.
The trek to Cloud’s Rest is one that really sticks out in my memory. The photo here is my friend Liz and me on top of Cloud’s Rest right before an epic summer storm. We were facing the most gorgeous sunset I’d ever seen while a thunderstorm billowed purple and blue behind us. Just as our hair started to rise (lightning alert!), we hustled down the bald peak of Cloud’s Rest and set up our primitive camp below the treeline. That summer totally changed my life and living in California with all the cool kids living in the park really opened my eyes. I was even invited to Burning Man that summer but declined only to totally regret that decision later on. (It was the tenth year of the festival and the infamous year they had live ammo on the playa!) Anyway, it was so bittersweet to head home. But my science studies called me. And I was committed. I’m like that.
Sometime in Fall of my junior year I needed to find an outside job beyond my work-study yearbook photographer job. I was technically on my own and with gas expenses, car insurance plus money to just be a college student, I applied for a job at Whole Foods. It was the OG location in the Dallas area and I figured it would be a good support for my vegetarianism and it might help me transition from the ultimate cool summer in California. Turns out I was right.
I started out in the coffee bar (since I had experience working in one on the Rome campus and in Yosemite) and migrated at some point to the bakery before finally landing in the Herbs and Body Care department. This was the best fit for me at the time I would soon realize. My degree plan was chemistry and working with the herbs, the vitamin vendors and the wicked smart women that had worked there for years (and years!) gave me access to this really cool body of knowledge that I could understand through my scientifically trained mind. I learned so much during this period of time about alternative treatments, what herbs are good for what ailments, understanding homeopathic remedies, flower remedies and so much more. I picked up several good resources during my time there that I still rely on to this day.
These college jobs didn’t really prepare me for the big world though, as I would soon find out. The year was 1998.
Periodic updates from Aurah in the Field.