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What I’ve learned living the paper mill life

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Since I turned eighteen, I have spent the last three summers working at a nearby paper mill. For me, that meant working three to four 12-hour shifts (no breaks) for 36 to 48 hours a week, for two weeks of days and two weeks of nights. My schedule was always Tuesday, Wednesday, Saturday, Sunday, Monday, Thursday, Friday, 6 am to 6 pm, or 6 pm to 6 am. In short, it was a lot—but I felt like I should give these time frames to explain exactly how it has consumed the summers of 2018, 2019 and 2020 for me. While I can be bitter about this, I weirdly do love it and think fondly of it (but based on my early Variety articles, I’m pretty sure I depict it as Stockholm Syndrome).  

When I first started as a new 18-year-old high school graduate, who knew nothing about mills or night shifts or working with 40- to 50-year-old strangers, I was scared. But I quickly learned that I can do pretty much anything if I can work for 12 hours; drive a gas towmotor backwards with an 800 pound, 70” roll of paper; and make it through countless night shifts and feeling wide awake at 3 am. I am so proud of this mental/physical/stubborn strength I possess that I try to talk about the mill whenever I can. 

Luther, one of my writers, wrote an article a while ago about Lawrence students earning money at local mills as a hypothetical solution to some students wanting a wage increase. I think that working at a mill can give you so much confidence for other parts of your life that ordinarily would intimidate you a lot more. Not too many people our age work at a mill for the summer, and for those who do, I bet your first term of college felt like a breath of fresh air. It was probably hard in a different way and way more stimulating, but gosh, wasn’t it a breeze compared to making your body work that long without breaks? 

For an example of this confidence, are you feeling nervous about your upcoming finals? Never invalidate your struggles, but the mill can change your thought process when facing a challenge. First, are the finals really that important in the grand scheme of things? (This is something the mill can help you understand—school is not all that, and technically we could all make a lot more money with a mill career post-graduation.) Second, didn’t you push huge balers to the baler area without the help of your forklift? (While mental labor can be a lot harder than physical labor, knowing you are capable of being strong helps you power through challenges.) This works with a lot of other things that we do as really cool humans. I encourage you to work at a mill or instead think about what else makes you feel like a “baller,” “legend,” you name it. 

With such a grueling schedule, though, you do miss out on so many things: on relaxation, time to get better in your field, opportunities, sleep, social time, camping trips, vacation, rest after a tough school year…all to be able to afford the price of tuition at Lawrence. Sure, you might think that this is a temporary sacrifice, just a four-year hardship and then you’ll be doing what you want for the summer. But I know that life will just get more demanding as we get older and go into our careers, and as Sarah says in her article this week, “the adult world will soon reach us, and it will be even harder to find time to reset yourself.” I completely agree.  

However great long breaks are for us in feeling like a human, though, they are just not realistic for many students who need to work to support themselves through college. I instead offer a balance—why not work and take breaks? We can gain so much self-knowledge, esteem and confidence in doing hard things…whether that be at a paper mill, a super cool internship at NASA, a few summer classes, et cetera. At the end of summer, reflect on how much you’ve grown and see how it makes school and the rest of life comparatively easier. What makes it manageable, though, are the breaks we get. So please take as many breaks as you can while doing whatever makes the most sense for you this summer. 

Have a great summer, and I will say goodbye as the Op-Ed editor for good, while slowly embracing my mill life once more…