My Journey as the Youngest in the Office and What It Taught Me About Professionalism

When I first started working as an Administrative Assistant in a Graduate School Department, I thought I’d made it. It was a consistent job on campus that meant my only commute time was the 10 minutes it took to walk across campus and working in this section meant I'd get a little glimpse into what the admissions process was like for if I ever decided to go to grad school. What I didn't realize was that my new coworkers consisted of a handful of staff members, tons of professors, and a bunch of students who were all older than I was. I knew that I had the work ethic to succeed in this job, but I worried about how others would perceive me and that at the slightest slip up I, and others, would see my age weighing on me. 

My first day of work was a Friday late last September and absolutely nobody was in the office; my superiors were out on emergencies and none of the faculty were to be found. My only task was simple: virtual onboarding. I felt good setting up my employee e-mail and the mainline voicemail, and all the training for my different responsibilities seemed easy enough. The trouble came any time a student passed the big glass window adjacent to my desk and looked confused to see me sitting there. I told myself that it was because they weren't aware someone new would be starting, but deep down inside I worried it was because I didn't look a day over 16 years old. Finally, a graduate student gave me my first real task when they needed me to print some forms for the academic advisor. As we made small talk, the inevitable question was raised: “So are you a student in another graduate program?”  “No, actually I'm an undergrad in the English program right now. One more year to go!” “Oh wow, so how old are you?”  “...20 years old”

“OMG, you're just a baby!”

It didn't offend me as much as it made me worry that other people were also seeing me through the same rose-colored glasses. With a staff consisting of only two people and my bosses yet to be introduced to, I started to panic a little. What would they say when I had to change my schedule for my classes every semester? Would they feel the age difference when I jumped up to request all the student holidays off for a chance to go home? Or maybe my lack of knowledge of what a "Capstone" or "Defense" was would be enough to show my age. Would they realize I was younger than all the other Administrative Assistants in the building? I didn't want to have to compromise the parts of my life that made being a college student fun to feel or pretend to be more mature.

Courtesy: Giphy

Everything changed when I met my bosses the following week. My bosses and the staff had an in-depth hours-long meeting with me about what my priorities would be in the office, which one of them I would go to with questions, and what departmental projects we would need to get rolling with the proper support personnel. One of these things was a display case downstairs that everyone thought looked like it was stuck in the '80s. I'm talking about the funky borders and construction paper we all put on our middle school science fair projects (yeah, you know the ones). They wanted the display to be more modern, made digitally and printed like wallpaper, and before I could even think it through, the offer to try to whip up some designs was pouring out of my mouth. I had been Photoshop certified in high school so I knew a thing or two about design, but after barely being in the department a day, I didn't know what kind of work they would need or want for this project. I had effectively put my foot in my mouth and I knew that this would be my priority for the next few weeks, on top of all the administrative tasks I would have to take on daily.

If nothing else, that project taught me some things! I spent two months in the office and on my own time working on making the display just right. It was a 60”x120” display case and I needed to make sure I got the proper information on that I captured the style the department envisioned. The project ended up being a blessing in disguise! I permanently took up a graphic design role after the display case was finished and now I get to work on everything from display cases to promotional materials distributed to potential students all over the world.

My age isn't something that has hindered me in the workplace, it's actually helped me be more involved around the department. I get asked to sit in on meetings regarding recruitment to provide my perspective as an undergraduate student looking into grad schools and I get asked for my opinion on everything from furniture to the pictures we post to maintain a relevant aesthetic on social media. 

It feels good to be appreciated by my superiors who have so much experience and so many accomplishments under their belts. I’ve realized that my level of professionalism is not determined by my age or lack of experience, but it's about what I put into my work every day. I handle the curve balls that come my way like I've been here as long as everybody else. I have formed relationships with my superiors that make me comfortable to discuss when I feel that I am not suited for a task, and I do not feel inexperienced in having to do so.

Professionalism is not saying yes to everything in the hopes that you will look more capable, it's taking advantage of opportunities to grow and knowing that you can turn down things that are going to overwhelm you. My job has not only allowed me to explore what being professional at 21 years old entails, but it's also taught me about the kind of professional I want to be when I am working with younger people in the future, and that is something invaluable to me as I graduate and start working on my career. Want to see more HCFSU? Be sure to like us on Facebook and follow us on InstagramTwitter, and Pinterest!