This was originally published in the Fall 2011- Winter 2012 issue of The Pearl: Soka University of America’s (SUA) Student Magazine. The summer following graduation, I pursued an internship opportunity with Slow Food USA, a non-profit organization that cultivates leaders of the agricultural movement. I completed a senior capstone on the emergence of the organic movement and believed that this opportunity was the perfect way to continue that project. The title refers to my capstone mentor, James Spady. Us, mentees, called ourselves “Spadyans.” I still reflect back on this experience and am appreciative for all the things I learned. My favorite moment was when I answered the phone and Michael Pollan was on the line. I definitely should have asked for an autographed copy of his book. Anyway, read on for more on this experience!

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Greetings from the beastly East Coast! I am a proud graduate from the “Lucky 7, Class of ’11” and am currently creating value in my hometown of New York City. For 80-something of us, we are just about at our six-month anniversary as SUA alumni. Some of us are working and others are back in school and I can assure you that our epic spirit and Soka philosophy still remain strong in each of our hearts.

Graduation in May 2011 was followed by an uncertain, open path of exploration. I tried to keep an open mind while applying to many jobs and opportunities, but couldn’t quite find that perfect fit for my skill set and interests. I looked in the environmental field, hoping to find a position that would be flexible enough where I won’t be doing repetitive work but would also have good consistency. I wanted to be surrounded by individuals who would put me in difficult and challenging situations, only because they know I can excel and grow tremendously. I sought an environment where learning from each other was a necessary function of the workplace and constructive dialogue took place. My mentors at SUA have shown me just how rewarding it can be to be in this kind of environment where they never settle for less than what you are capable of accomplishing and push you to keep taking big leaps in your growth. I continued to look for fruitful opportunities but my searches always led me to dead ends.

I had that epiphanic moment in mid-July when I discovered internship openings at Slow Food USA, a non-profit organization that spearheads the food movement in the pursuit of a more sustainable agricultural system. While I was a senior at SUA, I worked one-on-one with James Spady on a capstone project that explored the heart of the organic movement. I realized that when individuals wrote about food and the environment, the discussion went deeper and was actually about restoring a more connected sense of existence with one another and the land that we come from. It didn’t occur to me until that moment that I should be seeking opportunities that were relevant to what I did with my capstone. While there are many organizations dedicated to a better food system, Slow Food USA gets to the heart of it by valuing each of their members and putting the emphasis on the cultivation of leaders.

The first time I heard the term “Slow Food movement” was actually last year (Fall 2010) in Spady’s office when we were discussing potential capstone topics. I wanted to explore food as a platform for people to connect and discuss environmental issues and he suggested I look into their work. When I rediscovered them this year (July 2011), I couldn’t think of a better place to commit myself to work so without hesitation, I applied to work in the Executive Department. In early August, I was offered to take up an internship position at Slow Food USA as an Assistant to the Chief of Staff. What better way could I start my post-SUA life by picking up my capstone where I left off? After all, a capstone is nothing if the values are not put into practice. That’s really at the core of this “value creation education” that is obsessively spoken about.

Slow Food USA is the kind of organization that is continuously evaluating what their values are and how to put them into practice. What strikes me as remarkable is that this happens both internally in the office and externally as an organization in the public eye. To the public, Slow Food USA is known through their campaigns and advocacy programs but there is a lot that happens in the office as well. When interns are trained to handle incoming calls on the general line, staff encourage them to answer caller’s inquiries directly. The responsibility to maintain solid relationships with their members and other food enthusiasts kept me in a position to always learn about the organization that I represent and be proactive about seeking ways to communicate the mission and work to others. It has personally made me feel much more integrated into the organization and gave me greater confidence when communicating over the phone.

My specific role in the organization as an Intern for the Executive Department and the projects that I work on have been exactly what I wanted. Food is a passion of mine and I have substantially expanded my knowledge of varies issues surrounding the industry through capstone and working at Slow Food USA. On the administrative side, I do a lot of reading, writing and research but I have been able to utilize my organizational skills and sharpen them further. During my first month, I was fortunate to have the experience of taking minutes for a conference call for board members and senior staffers. While it was overwhelming, nothing could have taught me better firsthand how non-profits, especially Slow Food USA, operates behind the scenes. I have also been heavily involved in event preparation and coordination. Oftentimes, logistic information needs to be compiled about the event and the travels that are associated with it so it has been a game of Tetris to try and put it all together in a way that is concise and easy to understand.

I entered the organization during a semester that went through many changes. This semester (Fall 2011), as an Executive Intern, I had the opportunity to collaborate with our media and marketing sectors to build and establish a Public Relations Department. As a result, our name has been featured in many established media outlets, including an article solely dedicated to our work by The New York Times Food Opinionator, Mark Bittman. In fact, this semester has been about getting Slow Food USA’s name out there. When the organization launched the annual Day of Action campaign in September (2011), they have significantly surpassed their goals for numbers of meals shared. Among the thousands of things that I appreciate about this experience, I’d say the one thing that really tugs at my heart is how no one takes the words “thank you” lightly.

Perhaps the best metaphor to express what my post-SUA life has been like would be a cross country race. Oftentimes, I went into a race not knowing the course and even worse, not wearing a watch. There was absolutely no way to pace myself and where the brutal points in the trail were, especially hills. But when I think about it, those things weren’t absolutely necessary to know. I already had what that I needed: the training. I knew those 6:30AM morning practices gave me everything I needed to push myself during the actual race. If you believe in the fact that SUA has given you the right tools and the necessary training, then believe me, all the details in life will work themselves out. My hope is for all of you to step out with confidence, knowing that everything you are doing at SUA will take you exactly where you need to be, even if the “how” is unclear at the moment. You may physically leave SUA after graduation, but the training will never leave you. Keep that in mind and keep moving forward.

Cheers,

Riri

[This article has been edited for clarity and contextual information has been added. Please keep in mind that this was written five years ago and my writing abilities have improved tremendously since then. However, I wanted to keep as much of my raw 22-year-old voice as possible.]