With my senior year just around the corner, I am mentally preparing myself for the onslaught of college applications, another round of AP classes, leadership orientation and responsibilities, and a varsity sport. But on the beautiful drive from the San Francisco airport to my school in Pebble Beach, I’m thinking of none of these things. As my family and I make our way through the roaming hills and mountains of northern California, we pass the famous farmlands of Salinas, the very ones Steinbeck was so fascinated by. The farms and even the farm stands, where you can buy succulent California produce right off the freeway, remind me of a couple of special friends I met this summer, who were part of an experience that helped me grow, gave me perspective, and was some of the most fun I have ever had.

Freddy and Pablo were who I was thinking of when we passed the scenic and historic Salinas farmlands. They came to Salinas a few years ago from Mexico when they were young students to make money for their families. They were lettuce farmers at first, but they hated doing it, so they waited for a better opportunity. They were relieved finally when they found a job in Lawrenceville, New Jersey, as soda fountain-tenders and fry cooks at Cheeburger Cheeburger, the burger joint in our neck of the woods, where I had the privilege of waitressing and meeting people like them this summer vacation.

My dad was initially skeptical of my job at Cheeburger this summer. He thought my plate was already too full with senior year preparations and my golf schedule (I am on the varsity team at school).

But I set out to prove him wrong, that I could do everything I was supposed to and more, because Cheeburger could be a really great experience for me, something new and different that I could grow from. Summers are about growth and experience after all, and I wanted something fresh. So I went through the interview and training process, studying tips and skills to be a better waitress along the way, always praying that I wouldn’t drop anything or let a customer down. I was completely out of my comfort zone those first few weeks; everything I learned was a complete blur. I felt bad for my coworkers on my shift, because I was always asking questions: “Where do we keep the barbecue sauce?” “How do you take the trash out without the dumpster lid falling on your head?” Yes, I was a complete newbie.

What made my experience at Cheeburger really wonderful, though, were the genuinely nice people there, the fun-loving atmosphere, and the fast-paced nature of waitressing, the “Cheeburger Way” in its entirety. We treat customers as if they are guests in our own homes, we never say no, and we make sure everyone gets enough free refills. People help each other, and everyone I worked with helped me, no questions asked.

I learned how to handle rude customers, I dealt with great tips and horrible tips, so many ups and downs that I now accept Karma for what it is. I learned how to be humble, dignified, and gracious, and I wasn’t afraid to get my hands dirty and work hard, quite literally as a few of my frequent jobs were emptying the slop buckets and garbage cans. I made mistakes, like spilling the dipping sauces and forgetting an order of fries, but I learned from everything that happened. I encountered a few interesting customers, some nice, some not at all. All in all, though, the people I met were generally wonderful.

Freddy and Pablo were sweet and inspiring; they send a large portion of their paychecks to their families back in Mexico including younger sisters and Freddy’s daughter. They emulate generosity, though it makes me sad that they can’t be with their families now. Mike, the general manager, Mary, the assistant manager, and Chrissy, the new associate manager, all were kind and understanding, and they kept me on my toes.

John Lim, the manager, was intimidating at first because I didn’t want to make a grave restaurant mistake in his presence, but I grew to really like and respect him because of the great restaurant that he has worked hard to cultivate. Josh, whipsmart and genuine, was one of the first people I met because he trained me for waitressing. Marcy was upbeat and inclusive. She also helped train me, and I am continually grateful.

Most of my coworkers were college students, whom I respected as responsible for making and learning the value of money and paying for their own expenses. In the kitchen, Mark, Eduoardo, and Patrick always helped me out when I needed something, and they were all so chipper that their moods were contagious. I laughed a lot with these people and grew to respect them and be grateful to them for welcoming me. It was refreshing to be surrounded by genuinely happy and interesting people all with different stories to tell.

I’m already looking forward to working at Cheeburger next summer, when hopefully I won’t be such a newbie anymore. As for this summer, I couldn’t be more proud of my experience, and my parents feel the same way. Even my father has admitted to being wrong about my job. Waitressing is generally a fun and active job, but at Cheeburger it was truly a memorable experience. The people are great, the atmosphere is upbeat, and the food, let me tell you, is so mouthwatering, especially when you’re waiting for the end of the shift. Everyone has a heart; we held the Livestrong Foundation fundraiser there, which helped my Dad and me raise over $1,500 for cancer research.

Because of the raging success (I’m not surprised) of the Lawrenceville Cheeburger Cheeburger, Mr. Lim is opening another Cheeburger in Hamilton. I am excited to go eat there, and I hope everyone else is, too because two places like this are so much of a good thing, and I want to share the greatness Cheeburger has to offer.