HAPPO Stories: Finding balance in a three-hour commute

Today I’m introducing a new series to my blog: HAPPO Stories. As most of you probably know, I’m heavily invested in HAPPO (Help a PR Pro Out). It represents something I care about deeply and really believe in (helping others and giving back to the PR industry).

As HAPPO has evolved over the last year-plus, one thing I’ve learned to appreciate–and love–is the stories people share. Finding a first job. Leaving their first job. Working with a mentor. I’ve heard a lot in the last year. That’s why today, I wanted to start sharing those stories with you in hopes that they inspire you as much as they’ve inspired me.

My hope is to share at least one story a month (we’ll see how it goes)–and I wanted to start by sharing the story of Natalie Zheng, a young woman I met randomly on Twitter a couple weeks ago.

Natalie didn’t find her job through HAPPO, but she did find that first job in the “spirit” of HAPPO. And, she has a very interesting story to tell about balance and how her days play out each day. I’ll let Natalie tell the rest…

Never pass up a chance for a good connection. That was my mantra during my college years. I say that as if it was years ago, but it wasn’t. Merely 10 months ago, I was suffering from senioritis and ready to break into the real world.

But my mantra holds true to me still, even after graduation. Everyone you meet – through in-person interviews, coffee shop baristas or even though social media – is a connection. And everyone you connect with has another connection to introduce you to.

I got my first internship after a presentation speaker called out “if anyone is interested ininterning, I’m always looking!” I sent in an email introduction and two weeks later, I was sitting at a desk writing a news release.

Fast forward to senior year where the job hunt started. Since I was a Des Moines transplant, my heart was set on returning home to Minneapolis. As all seniors in my classes did, I searched in every corner of the internet world. It was great to have local resources such as MNPR job blog and recent alums that lived in Minneapolis to talk to. Spring semester, I got very comfortable with four-hour drives down I-35.

My boss at my internship, Nikki, asked me how it was going and I mentioned to her a couple opportunities I found. One of them was with the Mayo Clinic as a summer public affairs intern.Nikki then mentioned that she knew someone at Mayo Clinic. “Do you want me to connect you?” she asked. Yes please, I replied.
After an informal phone conversation, I was excited about the public affairs internship program. Nikki’s friend Elizabeth explained the three parts of the division – marketing, external media andinstitutional communications. She also told me she had gotten asked that morning to be one of the supervisors for the intern program. I applied and waited. It was quite a while later when I got the final phone call – great news, I got the internship.

The next step was figuring out where I was going to live. Rochester, Minn., is about an hour-and-a-half outside of the Twin Cities. I grew up in a northwest suburb, so it was unlikely that I’d be commuting from home. Luckily, one of the other interns also needed housing, and after many apartment.com and craigslist searches, we found a nice man wanting to move out early and got to take over his lease.

Through the course of summer, I took on a variety of different projects and got to see marketingfrom a large non-profit view. I spent my workweek focusing on work, and most weekends,driving back up to the Cities. As August was closing in, my roommate was getting ready to go back to college and my internship was coming to an end.

I had to make two decisions. 1) Looking for a job should be a full-time job and it’s hard to double up when you are really happy at your current job. I knew my internship was ending soon, but there was a possibility of an extension. I just had to ask for it. 2) Did I enjoy living in Rochester? Don’t get me wrong—the city itself has a lot to do. But all my friends and family were up in the Cities and I found myself there on weekends (and occasionally a weeknight). If my internship had extension possibilities, would I be willing to drive back and forth during the winter?

I decided to turn to Elizabeth. I asked about the possibilities of an extension and she said she’d look into it. I also mentioned the difficulties of finding a one-bedroom apartment that is willing to go short-term or month-to-month in the Rochester area and being unsure about staying and living in Rochester on my own.

“You know, there is a bus that drives down from the Cities right? Karl rides from the bus most mornings,” she said.

Mayo Clinic has a wonderful bus program. Most of the on-site parking is meant for patients,so employees use park-and-rides or take in the commuter busses to get to work. I was use to the city bus lines, but not the commuter. After a quick chat with Karl and approval to extend my internship, I was looking into the possibilities of moving back to Minneapolis.

Rochester City Lines picks up in two locations – the Mall of America and Inver Grove Heights, Minn. The bus leaves Mall of America at 6 a.m., continues down to Inver Grove Heights and then an hour later stops in downtown Rochester. On most normal weather days, riders can expect to be dropped off at Mall of America around 6:45 p.m. When three hours of your day is spent on the bus, this makes for long days.

I debated if I was ready to take on this lifestyle as a young adult. I wouldn’t be able to meet my friends downtown for happy hours and I would probably need to be in bed early to get up at 5 a.m. Dinner wouldn’t happen until 7 p.m. so I needed to plan ahead, rather than shop prior to cooking. Basically, the decision to commute would force me to be even more organized than I already was. This was a good thing.

I decided to do it—start commuting from the Twin Cities. To be frank, as a young adult—I didn’t have a lot going on. I didn’t have kids that needed to get picked up or dropped off, and didn’t need to be meeting my friends out for drinks every night. I could skip the extra hour of TV on the couch to get other things done around the apartment. If I wanted to attend any networking events, I’d have to be ready to drive down for the day. If I had an interview up in the Cities, I’d have to get approval for a day off or schedule it around my drive.

There are a handful of bus riders who have been riding for years—the longest rider I’ve met is 13 years in. With the harsh, snowy Minnesota winter and the rise of gas prices, there are more and more employees coming from the Twin Cities riding the bus each day. For me, the choice has been a smart one. I get to spend three hours each day catching up on work (the bus has wi-fi), reading a good book, taking a cat nap or calling friends to catch up. After riding it for a few months, I’ve found a good balance. I’m able to work at an organization that I admire and still have a city life.

Through my job hunt and experience, I learned to find balance. As a young adult, my professional experience is my focus, but I need my family and friends as well. Finding ways to have work-life balance is challenging, but important. I learned to take advantage of opportunities and connections that came my way. When I was running low on projects, I made a point to raise my hand and ask for more to do. I also learned patience and persistence. After being an intern for 10 months, I was finally promoted to an associate level and get to stay on full time. Many people have asked if I plan to move down toRochester soon and my answer is no. I’m just starting to get use to this lifestyle and am finding that it works for me.

Natalie Zheng is a marketing associate at Mayo Clinic. She’s a recent grad from Drake University and enjoys being back in Minneapolis, long bus rides and travel pillows. Connect with me on LinkedIn and follow me on Twitter.

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