“In an alternate universe, if you could be anything you wanted, what would you be?” My sister asked me this one day in one of our weekly evening FaceTime calls. Without hesitation, I responded, “a professional pastry chef, of course.” This answer did not surprise her; it is well known amongst my friends and family that I have a passion for food, especially baking.
My appreciation of food began in the humblest but most impactful setting: the home kitchen. Despite the busy academic and extracurricular schedules of me and my older sister, one thing we could always rely on was our mother’s cooking. The simple meal of rice and a stir fry made of whatever vegetables we had in the fridge sustained my childhood and adolescence. But on special occasions, like when my father came home from a long business trip, or for our celebration of the Chinese New Year, my mother made her specialty: homemade dumplings. Making dumplings was the time for family bonding. My mom would roll beautiful skins of dough while my father, my sister and I would wrap them with the homemade filling, laughing at each other’s misshapen creations.
When I left for college at Bard College at Simon’s Rock, a tiny school in middle-of-nowhere Western Massachusetts, I missed this experience with my family the most. I tried to make dumplings myself, using a makeshift recipe hastily scratched onto a notepad during a call with my mom, but of course, it was never the same.
But the lack home-cooked food allowed me to discover my own love for cooking. I began eating at the dining hall less, cooking my own meals. I also dove into the world of baking. My first batch of chocolate chip cookies melted into a pool of butter and sugar— I had accidentally only added half the required flour for the recipe— but they made a great crispy “lace cookie” topping for our breakfast yogurt. With more trial and error, I eventually mastered quick breads and cakes, to the point where I can now whip together a batch of breakfast muffins in minutes without need for a recipe.
I proceeded to yeasted breads, like raisin bread and pumpkin cinnamon rolls. The culmination of my home baking endeavors was a batch of croissants, perfectly flaky and soft. At this point in my life, I had actually committed to a vegan lifestyle for ethical and environmental reasons, so I couldn’t enjoy the fruits of my labor myself. Yet, seeing my family members’ faces of amazement and joy was enough gratification to make the many hours of kneading, rolling, folding, and waiting well worth it.
Despite all the time I spent cooking and baking, I still managed a full time engineering student life, packed with not only my own rigorous schoolwork, but also my other jobs as a peer tutor, swim instructor, lifeguard, animal caretaker, and usher. I took on these “side hustles” to support myself and help my family. Most of the time, they were rewarding jobs; it was always exciting to see a student finally come to their own understanding of a hard chemistry topic, or to help a child swim confidently in the deep end of the pool. I admit, without a doubt, that my workaholic tendencies severely restricted my social life. I can count on one hand the number of parties and “social events” I’ve gone to in all three years of my college life thus far.
This never bothered me though; I have always valued my sleep and academic success over the pursuit of a superficial social facade. It was with this attitude that I marched through two and a half years of my time as an undergraduate. But in the Spring of 2020, I was blessed with an unexpectedly fruitful gift: a job opening as a baker in my local natural foods grocery store.
A New Beginning
When I applied to a part time bakery position at “the Co-op”, everyone, including myself, called me insane. It just so happened that the bakery department was severely short staffed, and I received the okay to begin work within a week of my interview. How would I manage 16 hours of work per week in addition to all of my other commitments? In the first few weeks of the semester, I changed my lifeguarding hours to the early morning, and took only evening tutoring appointments. I dropped my job as a swim instructor— it interfered with my new Saturday bakery shift. There were some days of the week where I worked almost continuously from 6am to 10pm, scurrying all around campus from the pool to my classes at the science building, then to tutor at the library and student union. All of this to fit in two shifts at the bakery on Saturday and Sunday mornings.
Little did I know that these mornings in the bakery would soon be my favorite times of the week. I felt like I was being paid to forget about all of my homework and exams, and just make food that brought joy to people’s lives. I loved every aspect of my behind-the-scenes production job, and the eight hour shifts flew by.
Two months in, I came up with my own recipe (vegan cinnamon cardamom cookies) that was introduced as a new regularly offered product. Three months in, I asked if I could attempt to make more of the store’s products vegan. I hoped the store could adopt more allergen and sustainability-minded recipes, but I also simply wanted to be able to taste the food I was making. My goal was to leave a long term impact on the store and on my coworkers, even after I graduated and left the small town, but it was difficult to do so working only two days per week.
Crisis and Change
Then, the whole covid-19 pandemic happened (and is still happening as I write this). It made me realize that taking a job in the bakery was one of the best decisions I have made in my entire life. Classes shifted to online only, and all of campus closed, from the pool to the library and science center. Suddenly, I was left with no way to pay rent, let alone tuition— except of course, my job at the Co-op. The grocery store had to remain open to sustain the community in the time of crisis, and I soon became a full time baker. Almost every day, I would work 6:30 am to 2:30 pm making cakes, muffins, cookies, and scones, as if everything were normal.
You may wonder what happened to my studies— did I give up engineering to pursue culinary arts? Though I have a passion for baking, I am also motivated to pursue a career in biomedical engineering research. Every day, even after baking for eight hours, I return home and begin my online classes. I intend to keep up with my independent studies, despite the semester’s less-than-ideal academic situation.
In the same way that I am fascinated by the perfect combination of ingredients in a new recipe, I love the elements of serendipity and discovery in science. I can see myself conducting and facilitating research at a national lab or research institution, dedicating my life to furthering human knowledge and enabling others to do the same. And so I continue, quite happily, to take classes in quantum mechanics, electronics, and inorganic chemistry for a career in engineering that offers me great promise.
There is still that tiny seed in the back of my mind that is ready to sprout should I decide to nurture it more. For now, my job as a “bakery artisan” is a full time “side hustle”, but I know that, deep down, it means so much more. It is the real experience of my hobby manifesting to meaningful work. It is a demonstration of my ability to support myself financially and manage my time wisely. I am proud to be able to include this experience in my resume, even if it is completely irrelevant to the rest of my work as a researcher. I do not know what the future holds, but regardless of where my studies take me, I know that good food will never cease to bring joy into the lives of me and the people around me.
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Check out the other finalists here: 2020 Side Hustlin’ Student Scholarship Results Page.