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No Sugar in My Coffee—Actually, No Coffee at All: De Leon ’20 at Phillip Brigham in Chicago, Illinois

After six years of travel and relocating to two states and five different countries, I never thought I would be susceptible to culture shock in the midwest. Working as a legal assistant for Antioch alum Phillip Brigham has proven otherwise. What I mean to say is this: for someone who has never had 1) an interest in studying law and 2) any office experience, I signed up for this job knowing it would be something new and challenging. I don’t regret it at all.

The first time I visited Chicago was in August of 2017. It was the weekend of the Charlottesville protests. I remember walking into a bar serving happy hour prices to meet a longtime friend in Rogers Park. It was only a few minutes before I, along with everyone else in the bar, was facing two flat screens displaying live coverage of the violence that broke out. Weirdly enough, I was relieved to be in a big city during such a time of disillusionment. The five days I spent in Chicago evoked a patience for growth both personal and political.

I returned to Antioch in the haze of rust belt humidity on a Sunday afternoon with four other students, slipping in and out of a mid-quarter crisis and entertaining my next big move. When the time came to apply for jobs, I was so sure about moving to Chicago that I only applied to one co-op, where I would be working as a legal assistant—something completely unfamiliar to me. Like I’ve mentioned before, I’ve never had an office job, nor did I own any work attire. The closest I’ve come to bringing any decent court appearance outfit to life is wearing a beige faux-suede Tommy Hilfiger blazer, a white cotton turtleneck, and chunky black platforms with tassels, aware of how people might not look twice at my outfit when they are already staring at my siren red pixie cut and nose ring combo.

On my first day on the job, I photocopied God knows how many bank statements and uploaded them to Smokeball, a very popular software among lawyers that organizes and shares legal files. I went through hundreds of text messages (googling Spanish internet slang as I did so) and decided whether or not there was something more to them than I previously thought. It was tedious, it was thrilling, and it felt important. Telling my family and friends that I was working for a lawyer was both surreal and rewarding. But the next morning, I woke up worried about what important “somebodies” would think about my clothing in court or how I would keep up with the constant responsibility to complete tasks with little experience in a legally bound high-paying service industry. I put on the outfit I bought at Macy’s for my second day at work and looked at myself in the mirror. Instead of feeling like Dana Scully’s semi-casual sister, I asked myself, “Is this the best you can do? How do you expect to hide that you’re inexperienced?”

Drowsy and insecure, I bought a coffee to power through a midday dip. That was a bad idea—it all felt like a bad idea. Moving to a big city was a bad idea, working in an office was a bad idea…

There aren’t many things that make me anxious like coffee does. It took less than an hour for me to feel my heart in my throat and tears in the corner of my eyes. That was when I decided to go on my first and only hour-long lunch break. I walked into a Barnes and Noble cafe, bought some quick eats, and did the best thing I could think of: I called my mom.

I think she’s used to it. I think she’s used to me living in different places every six months. I think she’s used to me working for very rich people, the same people she cleans houses for. My mom has heard me call myself inadequate plenty of times before and this was no different.

I apologized to her for not appreciating the sacrifices she made when she moved to the U.S. from Guatemala thirty years ago. I told her that I was afraid of failing others. And that’s when she stopped me and said, “Jamás te olvides de tu meta, enfócate en tu meta y lograras el conocimiento y experiencia que necesitas.” Never forget your goal, focus on your goal and you will achieve the knowledge and experience you need. She’s said this to me before, and it certainly won’t be the last time she reminds me that, despite the many odds against me, focusing on my personal efforts will get me to where I need to be. She reminded me that I was exactly where I needed to be doing exactly what I needed to do. I don’t really care how cheesy it sounds, this really is how I was able to wipe away my tears, take several sips of sparkling water, return to work, and enjoy my first Friday in the city.

Now here I am on a Tuesday night during week seven, with a brewski while listening to a tape recording my boss made for Anti-Watt (a student-run radio station) in 1994. I’ve continued to meet judges in their chambers, prepare proposals for clients, and better my Spanish through translating documents. Along the way, I’ve made some friends, learned about Illinois law, had a couple of weird Tinder dates, and other things that you just don’t write in a blog post… oh, and no sugar in my coffee, please—actually, no coffee at all.

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Brooke Bryan is Dean of Cooperative, Experiential & International Education as well as an Associate Professor of Writing, Aesthetics & Digital Studies at Antioch College. She specializes in phenomenological oral history and undergraduate research pedagogy. With expertise in the digital humanities, philosophy, and research interests in material and immaterial culture, she develops partnerships and field-based research opportunities for Antioch students— scaffolding their intensive engagement with communities through interview projects.

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