One day, when I was a senior in high school looking for work, my parents and I were walking in a shopping mall about twenty minutes away from where we lived. I had come of age – working age – and I needed to start saving for college. “Go apply to JC Penney,” they said as we spotted the store.
I took the elevator up to the fourth floor, which only permitted employees. I saw women carrying clear plastic purses and a man with a gold badge. I asked the receptionist for an application, filled it out, and waited right there on the spot for an interview.
A woman wearing a leopard print blouse, stylish glasses, and her hair in an updo met me with a firm handshake and a gracious smile.
She looked at my application, lowered her glasses to the tip of her nose and said, “You have no experience. Why should I hire you?”
Without skipping a beat, I replied, “I am willing to learn.”
I got the job. Why? She explained to me that willingness to learn is the best quality to have.
Afterwards, I couldn’t wait to tell my parents. They were thrilled. It was one of the proudest moments of my life. I never even thought about the minimum wage salary, which was $3.35 per hour. To me, it was the best job in the world.
I spent the next several years working my way through college at JCPenney in a variety of capacities. Here I honed my interpersonal, organizational and financial skills. I learned how good design affects sales, and I learned about the cost vs. retail price. I became adept at cash management, issues with credit cards and a slew of returns after the holiday season. I also began to understand how important customer service (and listening to people) is to a company’s well-being.
The staff kept challenging me. I started in the Boys’ Department, then worked in Infants’, Men’s, Housewares, Bedding, Cameras, Credit, Audit and Invoice. They called me an “associate”, and made me feel like a part of their team. I worked the 12:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. shift on Saturdays, and I worked nights after school. During college breaks, I worked full-time.
I got my first job out of college in the Customer Service Department at Canon USA. I was able to obtain this position because of my experience in the Camera Department at JCPenney. Since I sold cameras, I had already proven my ability to learn about the products. This helped me to answer customer complaints with typewritten letters in those pre-e-mail days. From this I learned an important lesson: you never know which experience will help you accomplish your next goal.
I parlayed my customer service stint of eleven months to obtain a marketing job at a bank and, eventually, a position at a law firm. I have been working in legal marketing since 1990.
I will never forget the JCPenney Human Resources Director who took a chance on me. I tend to remember the people who were kind to me in my youth. Perhaps that is why I try to give back, too.
At my workplace, I am one of the professionals who participate in “ShadowDay,” held on February 2 (“Groundhog Day.) On this day, teenagers from area high schools come to our workplace and “shadow’ professionals who have jobs in their desired fields.
Through “Shadow Day”, I have met many bright and ambitious high school students. I can recall one particular student who really stood out. She spent extra time with me, asked intelligent questions, and sent a handwritten thank you note after the event. She also asked for advice on how she could use her summer to get ahead. “I’m willing to try anything,” she wrote.
I know she will go far.
Nothing is more inspiring to a boss, a teacher, or a mentor than someone who is willing to learn.
— Debra Scala Giokas ’87
Debra Scala Giokas has been in the field of Legal Marketing for 25 years. For the last 16, she has been working as Marketing Director of Long Island’s second largest law firm, Certilman Balin Adler & Hyman, LLP. Debra shares her love of English as a board advisor for Literacy Nassau which promotes adult literacy in the community. Debra was also an Adjunct Assistant Professor at Dowling College, where she taught an undergraduate course in services marketing for six years. She has been published in a variety of business and legal trades, which includes a quarterly column in the Public Relations Professionals of Long Island’s (PRPLI) newsletter “For Immediate Release.” Debra’s poems have appeared in magazines and literary journals, most recently in the 2014 Nassau County Poet Laureate Review. Debra was recognized by PRPLI with its Mentor Award in 2012. You can follow Debra on Twitter @debrascalag.
Making educated career decisions can be difficult at any stage of career development. The ASK (Alumni Sharing Knowledge) Blog is intended for Stony Brook University students and alumni to learn career knowledge and get advice from experienced alumni, working in various career fields, about lessons learned from their career experiences.