The real students of Nassau Street: Student employment outside the Orange Bubble| Nov 18, 2015
When Naomi Lake ’17 decided to pursue a part-time position at Olsson’s Fine Foods and Cheese, part of her reasoning involved a desire to experience a little bit of life outside the Orange Bubble.
“Instead of finding employment on campus … I wanted to do something that got me out of the Princeton bubble a little bit, especially for employment purposes,” Lake said. “It’s nice to be considered a twenty-something in the workable, real world, as opposed to being a Princeton student who had a job.”
Jobs. Princeton students always seem to be looking for them, in New York, Washington, California and elsewhere, perhaps not fully aware that Princeton itself is a regional locus for employment. The largest employer in Mercer County, Princeton University employs 6,000 benefits-eligible employees. According to Princeton’s student employment guide, over 2,400 students work part-time or temporary jobs on campus to help pay for their education, make a little money on the side and learn skills applicable to other careers. That said, while much of the Princeton experience can involve working on campus, in libraries and thinking about post-graduation employment, we don’t often think about what it means to work on the other side of Nassau Street.
For Victoria Liu ’17, a former employee of Infini-T Café & Spice Souk, what makes working at Nassau Street establishments alluring is the ability to fulfill a role that has an instant, measurable impact on others.
“There’s something incredibly charming or satisfying about being to able to make someone’s day by just handing them a cookie,” Liu said. “It’s so nice to have a place with such tangible product to your work, especially when you’re at Princeton every day, and you put so much emotional energy and stress into these papers, and you don’t ever see the end of it; you don’t ever feel like you’re making an impact.”
The instant gratification of giving someone a cookie is just one reason to work on the other side of Nassau Street. Other students are more into gaining casual expertise in the industry. Case in point: Zachariah DeGiulio ’18 works at Rojo’s Roastery once a week in a long seven-hour shift. Perhaps fittingly, his favorite thing about the job is the coffee.
“[Working at Rojo’s] definitely takes a huge portion of my time relative to most other activities, so it’s kind of something that I do more about the enjoyment of coffee than anything else,” DeGiulio said. “It’s just another thing that I schedule into my week. I don’t see it as a job … so it’s something that I like having in my schedule.”
While DeGiulio’s experience may not feel like a job for him, for Lake, working off-campus is an exercise in balancing school and work.
“I only work 12 hours a week, which might sound like a lot upfront, but it’s mostly hours that I would otherwise be spending with people on campus vaguely studying and not getting anything done,” Lake said. “Right now, since my schedule is very front-heavy in the beginning in the day, I tend to work afternoons that I have off, and by the evening I’m getting dinner with friends and involved in campus life again with the evening.”
Lake explained that though her schedule sounds stressful, she appreciates the ability to experience a different side of living and working in the Princeton community.
“It sounds really stressful to balance between the two worlds, but it’s really nice to have two worlds to choose from,” Lake said. “The owners are a husband-and-wife team, with kids that come in, so it’s just a different ecosystem.”
Interacting with the side of Princeton outside campus is something Emily Kamen ’17 is quite familiar with. Kamen teaches two yoga classes a week at YogaStream, a yoga studio on the corner of Tulane and Spring Street.
“I really like getting to know people that live in the town and the surrounding area,” Kamen said. “People are always bringing me books to read, or articles, or snacks that they made, or sometimes I’ll babysit [the kids of] people who work there.”
Similarly, interacting with customers at Rojo’s allows DeGiulio to connect with a variety of customers — predominantly townspeople, graduate students and tourists — in a different way than is possible on campus.
“You kind of get to connect with people that you don’t necessarily get to connect with as often on campus, which I really like, too, because it provides a feeling of grounded-ness … because Princeton at times can feel super isolated,” DeGiulio said.
Moreover, talking with a wide range of people can serve as a valuable dose of perspective from the fast lane of Princeton student life. Kamen explained the perspective she’s gained from working with the students in her yoga class, who can range from 18 to 70 years of age.
“People are always really interested in what I’m learning about at Princeton, so that kind of makes me more excited about my classes too, getting to talk about them with someone who doesn’t have the experience of attending classes here,” Kamen said. “It kind of offers me a fresh perspective of like, wow, I’m really lucky to be here. And at the same time, wow, there’s a life beyond Princeton, and it seems cool, too. So I really like it.”
The need to take a break from the career-oriented mindset of ambitious, competitive students who see their peers as a roster of qualified rivals is something that Liu considers an important aspect of working off campus as well.
“It’s very strange, because never on campus do we just stop and let people be people,” Liu said. “Here, it’s like what are you majoring in? What’s your goal in life? What’s your career path? What classes are you taking? Are you dying from midterms? We’re never like, what’s your deal? … What kind of person are you? We never ask anyone what kind of person you are.”
According to Liu, there’s an inherent tension to being in the position of serving Princeton students, however.
“I was very weirded out by the perspective of waiting on Princeton students,” Liu said. “I became very oddly invisible when I stepped behind the counter…. it was very weird to know that [there] were Princeton students and have them not consider that I was a Princeton student.”
When customers did ask about Liu’s background, she would explain that she studied at Princeton and would field questions about her life, a prospect that was much more pleasant and contrasted with her experience of how Princeton students tended to size up one another on campus.
“It was very cool just talking to random people who came for a cup of tea,” Liu said.
The social implications of serving Princeton students notwithstanding, the off-campus work experience can be very valuable for both sides of the equation, as is the case for Kamen.
“I think it’s really nice to see how appreciative everyone in this yoga community is,” Kamen said. “[Yoga] students are very thankful for me for just doing this job. They paid for this service and I’m doing it, but just they don’t seem to look at it that way; it’s like, wow, thank you for taking your time out of your day to teach me this class.”
In essence, for Kamen, it’s a win-win situation.
“And I’m like yeah, cool,” Kamen said. “I love doing it, and I got paid for it. It was awesome.”