The one defining experience in my life was my internship at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. I say this not to brag about it but because I believe it to be a turning point. It was the point in my life where I finally managed to grasp what are known as people skills.
Before my internship, I was shy. That was it. There was no argument and it was a fact about me. Once in a while, the more confident side of my personality would slip through and all of a sudden people would look at me like they didn’t know me. I nearly never volunteered in class, not because I never had anything to say but rather because I was always stressed about the fact that everyone said it first, better, or both. The regret on my part is that I truly feel that that was the environment that I believed that I could have thrived in. IN a high competition environment where everything said was challenged or criticized in one way shape or form.
The problem that I soon discovered was that I was not prepared for this type of environment. I was ambitious and competitive. Of that, there was no doubt. However, I had not yet developed a foundation psychologically to handle that type of environment. Living in an Asian household, I was unfortunately raised on nothing but a diet of books. Every sentence that came out of my mouth would, inevitably, lead back to academics. The result was that I could have an entire conversation and still not have a clue whom was talking to.
Port Authority changed that and it was due in a large part to my boss, or more officially, my worksite supervisor. I won’t give his name just in case it somehow leads back to him. As I was a general summer intern, it was all up to the Human Resources department where I would be placed. I was of course hoping for somewhere in Manhattan at headquarters where the center of the action is. That and the commute was excellent given that it would only be 45 minutes. I ended up being placed at JFK International Airport all the way in Queens with a two hour commute. That being said, I wasn’t at all too pleased about the situation. The lesson learned: life never turns out the way you expect it.
Now I move on to the good stuff. I quickly got over my annoyance because it hit me that I would be working at one of the busiest airports in the country. I met my supervisor and the entire department. I was officially placed as an intern at the Airport Operations Division. In short, we handle everything at the airport. We owned the entire place but we leased out the terminals to airlines so all the housekeeping is on their heads. Here, I want to explain something. Power is the most addictive drug on the planet which is a good lesson to learn as early as possible. There was a visible hierarchy of people who had business at JFK. There were the clients, the VIP and the nobility. We were nobility. I flash my ID and state that I’m a Port Authority employee and all of a sudden I’m an important person. Touring the various airline terminals, I have had all manner of people from domestic to the most exotic places come up to me and ask for directions or take pictures with them. I’ve had the pleasure to meet and organize tours for delegates from China or simply talk to people from around the world. (At this point I would like to add on a side note that Brazilian women are H.O.T) It was an awe-inspiring experience to be where America greets the world.
My ID badge also allowed me through security checkpoints at the terminals. This serves a useful purpose. Once I am past the checkpoint, there is an immediate change in scenery and it’s as though I walked into a shopping mall. I took my time window shopping, and on occasion actual shopping when I had a couple bucks to burn. That was definitely a plus.
Working at Airport Operations, I was allowed to work on the JFK Business Continuity plan which is a back-up plan in case the Port could not access the administrative building for whatever reason. I learned a lot from that experience alone as most large businesses will have created something similar and it would be a useful background to have. I audited companies to make sure that they have a right to be at the airport and are paying their fees to the proper authorities, i.e. the Port Authority.
But as I mentioned before, the most important thing I learned at this internship was how to carry myself. I was a shy person by nature. Pairing me up with an outlandishly outgoing supervisor was a blessing. My job as the intern allowed me shadow him and he taught me everything from how-to-walk to how-to-talk in a professional environment.
Firstly, the first time I see my colleagues of the day, the words that come out of my mouth should be “Hi. Good morning. How are you?” regardless of who I was speaking to. Last words of the day should be “Take care and see you later.” When speaking to any one of my superiors, always greet respectfully first, then humorously as a follow up. At morning or executive briefings, always have something to contribute and then joke on comments made by others to let them know I am paying attention.
On how to act casually, this man taught something very valuable. I learned how to report bad news without provoking people into violence. I recognized that it is important to treat everyone with dignity and respect. Although treating everyone equally is an admirable attempt, it is impossible. Acting with dignity and respect is therefore a perfectly acceptable alternative. We also worked on speaking with confidence and how confidence will naturally generate an aura of authority.
On a personal and slightly humorous level, I learned how to shamelessly flirt without causing undue physical trauma to myself or psychological trauma to my counter-part. I was also advised that I should date flight attendants. Since she would likely be gone for days at a time every week, and absence makes the heart grow fonder, the result is an exciting relationship that never breeds familiarity or resentment. In addition, I realized the importance of recognizing office politics and how to avoid offending others while manipulating it to my advantage.
In all seriousness, a great lesson that I learned was how to read others. By doing so, I could try and predict what would be favorable behavior. While others often advise me to “be myself,” that is often not the best of ideas. Rather, I should be professional or sociable. Because in all honesty, being myself would mean being a recluse.
That being said, my college expectations are nothing more than to develop social skills which in turn will allow me to develop professionally. I recognize that there will be challenges whether external or internal. At the Port Authority, we were once stood up by a delegation of 29 Chinese government officials. Considering that we already planned out an itinerary and bought lunch for them, we were thoroughly humiliated when they decided to skip the rest of the tour and go to Chinatown for lunch. But in retrospect, it wasn’t that bad and I got to eat their lunch free of charge. This experience has by far shown me that whatever obstacles I may face, I do have the courage to face them.