I want to share a personal story with you about a summer internship I had back in 2009. This short stint was one of the highlights of my work experiences abroad, and changed the way I perceived the design industry. It was my first real introduction on what it was like in ‘the real world’ and, although it only lasted a few months, it taught me important lessons in both life and in work. For those of you young designers who are just starting out, I hope this story will inspire you and encourage you to keep moving forward and to never give up.
Paris, Winter 2008
It was a few days before winter break, and I was skyping with my then-boyfriend about internships and summer work for the following year. I was telling him about the options I had there, and he gave me advice on how to go about looking for opportunities. By then, I had completed a full school year in Paris and, for some reason, the thought of going back home to Manila for summer break didn’t seem too exciting. I normally would jump at the first chance to come back home, but this time I felt I wanted to try something different. I was eager to learn. I wanted to immerse myself in the field I was studying in, and really get a taste of what the real world was like. My initial thought was to look for opportunities in Paris, but then I thought, why limit myself to Paris? I was going to come back anyway and had a few more years of school there, I may as well look elsewhere… Like maybe, New York? I had always wanted to live there.
It was a light bulb moment. The idea of spending the summer working in New York got me fired up - I spent evening after evening researching online for job opportunities and looking up design firms. There were so many job posts online but they were all so specialised and some required specific qualifications which I was not equipped with yet. Weeks into it, and still, not much luck. I was starting to get discouraged and felt that maybe this was all a waste of time. My boyfriend encouraged me to keep searching, and one day said “Why don’t you just send out an email with your CV to a bunch of designers and design firms you find interesting, and see if you get any responses? Who knows, they may be needing the extra help”. OK, I thought, why not try this method and see if anything happens. I have nothing to lose! I drafted a short email, describing myself, my background, my interests and what I am looking for in this summer job, attached my CV and pressed SEND. I must have sent out that email to over 100 different firms and interior designers. Of the 100+ that I sent to, only about 25% actually responded, and of the 25%, less than half responded positively. Still, I was so excited to receive some positive feedback. One email in particular caught my attention.
I sent out the email to designers of every kind. Some low key ones, some semi well-known, and some VERY well-known established ones. The email that caught my attention was by one of the latter type of designers - she was, in fact, a pretty famous one. One whose works have been featured numerous times in respectable magazines such as Harper’s Bazaar, Vogue, Elle Decoration, and Architectural Digest. For the sake of this story, and because I would rather keep her identity private, let’s just call her Meredith. I had included her in the list, but she was one of the few I thought for sure wouldn’t respond. But, there it was! I couldn’t believe it. The email wasn't from her per se, but from her right hand, a girl named Amanda. Amanda sent out a short email saying that Meredith was interested in having me join their team for summer 2009, and that by chance, she was coming to Paris in February for one of Meredith’s projects and would like to meet me over coffee. I froze as I read the email and thought to myself, “This is it. What I’ve been looking for. I better not mess this up!”
February came, and it was D-Day. I met Amanda for coffee at Les Deux Magots in the 6th district of Paris. Amanda, who I had imagined this whole time to be an older woman in her 40s (because of her very formal email responses), actually turned out to be very young. She was a 21-year-old, Chinese-American, working for Meredith full-time and studying business part-time at NYU. I cannot say that she was friendly, she didn’t smile very much, and she didn’t bother asking me any personal questions. I was only a year younger and yet she intimidated me. I thought, is this how all 21-year-olds are in New York City? She looked through my portfolio, nodding her head, half smiling awkwardly at some of my works, and then said “Meredith is looking forward to meeting you. She likes your background, the fact that you are Eurasian and speak French. When in June can you start?”
New York, Summer 2009
Fast forward to Summer of 2009. I had settled into my temporary home for the summer, and was eager to start working for Meredith. I had been to New York once before, but only for a short time on vacation with my family. This time I was really going to take the city in. I absolutely loved everything about New York. Its fast pace, the diversity of people, the shopping, restaurants and bars... I couldn’t wait to explore it all! I had a few friends living there at the time, so I was looking forward to catching up with them too. I felt like it was all falling into place and that the timing of everything couldn’t have been better. I was anxious and nervous about starting work. I didn’t mind that I wasn’t going to be paid, internships in general are not usually paid - I was just so looking forward to the experience of working for someone who I looked up to. Someone who had made her mark in the industry and who was very well respected in the world of design.
I came extra early on my first day at work, about 30 minutes early. Amanda was at the office already, looking a little disheveled as though she had spent the night working. It wasn’t the warmest welcome, a quiet ‘hello how are you’ and she she had me settle on a desk at the first floor of their small loft-turned-office. Meredith had two people in her team, Amanda and Marine. Marine was an interesting character. She was a 30-year-old French woman from Paris. A tomboy who spoke her mind a lot, and didn’t have much filter at all. She had been with Meredith over a year and yet her tasks seemed pretty basic, like calling up the printer supplier to order more ink cartridges, or organising pick-ups and deliveries. She was basically a glorified intern. Amanda on the other hand, did everything else, all the hard work essentially. That morning she kept me busy by having me read through articles on Meredith and her works, and by noontime, she came to me and said that we needed to go and meet Meredith at the site of one of her projects.
Meredith was well-dressed from head to toe. She wore tight fitting jeans, a tailored blazer, accessorised with Prada shades and a Prada handbag. "What took you so long?" she says to Amanda and me when we walk in. Amanda mutters an apology and then briefly introduces me. Meredith gives me a quick glance, nods hello, and turns her attention back to the workers that were on site. I thought maybe she was having a bad day, but I soon learned that that was just how she was. In the afternoon we all returned back to the office, and Meredith hands me a bottle of Fiji water. "Please grab a bottle anytime from the fridge, but as a rule you must always write down your initials on the bottle, so we don't mix them up. OK?". She walks up to her desk on the mezzanine floor without saying another word. Amanda notices my puzzled reaction and silently gestures me to go back to my desk. She sits with me and goes over some of the tasks I had to accomplish. They were simple, doable tasks, such as searching for suppliers online, scheduling meetings with companies, starting a database sheet of new suppliers, so on and so forth. In the afternoon, Amanda sends me to buy Starbucks coffee for her and Marine. My excited eager self thought, 'Hey, it wouldn't be a real internship if I wasn't sent out to buy coffee!'
When I returned to the office, Meredith had already left. I found my desk with a mountain of magazines on it and a mini USB key on the top most of the pile. A little pink post-it stuck on the screen of my desktop read: "Pls scan all my featured articles and save on USB. Need them by tomorrow morning. -M". It was half past 5 o'clock in the afternoon. This task would take me at least a couple more hours! I was dumbfounded. I walk up to Amanda and Marine and ask for their help on how to go about this. Marine hits the large printer/scanner machine next to her and says "sorry Kienle, machine is down. You'll have to go over to Kinko's to scan. It's just around the corner". Kinko's, the printing shop, was not 'just around the corner' but at least 5 blocks away. Amanda hands me a large bag and helps me fill it up with the first batch of magazines. I look over at the remaining pile, and it looks like I hadn't even touched it. Oh, boy i thought to myself. I'm going to be here a while.
I went back and forth from office to Kinko's five times. Luckily, Kinko's was open 24 hours. I lost a good hour waiting in line for a computer, and then another hour trying to figure out how to scan the first few articles and save them. The computer they assigned me to wouldn't read the USB. Disaster. I had to call up my techy boyfriend several times for help. Finally at 1 in the morning I was finishing up the very last magazine. I was beyond exhausted, and my back was aching from carrying all that weight on my shoulders. I dropped the USB back to the office, hailed a yellow cab and went straight home. I remember calling up my parents in Manila and telling them about my first day, and how tiring it was. I told them I wasn't so sure anymore about this internship. They encouraged me to stick with it, and reminded me who I was working for and that, in the end it would all be worth it, because it was valuable experience. 'It's only 3 months Jess" my dad said, "It'll be fine. You can do it." I knew they were right... But I just never imagined that my first day would turn out this way. I had geared myself up for this internship and knew that I would be doing a lot of clerical work, but I definitely wasn't expecting to be working until the wee hours. I went to sleep that night telling myself to stay positive, and that tomorrow would be a new day.
...To be continued.