Gen Z grad landed internship by wearing American University cap to pizza joint job. Now she works at Cisco.


Internships were poised to be a solution to this conundrum, but as one American University student soon found out while trying to bag work experience, nowadays it’s hard to even land a role fetching coffee for corporate executives.

“I was a first-gen college kid utterly perplexed by the internship paradox—I needed experience to land an internship, but I couldn’t get experience without one,” Ayala Ossowski, who has just turned 24, tells Fortune.

But after hearing crickets from over 100 applications, she decided to resort to unusual networking methods.

The Gen Zer was already working 20 hours a week at a pizza shop in suburban Washington DC, or as she puts it, “one of the wealthiest, most influential neighborhoods in the world”.

Being face-to-face with powerful people while she served them a slice got her thinking: “Why can’t these people give me a job?”

“The barrier I realized was that all they saw was the girl who was giving them pizza,” she adds. “I needed to give them a reason to look at me as a potential employee.”

That’s when Ossowski decided she was going to start wearing a baseball cap emblazoned with her university logo on the front to every shift. 

“I needed to give myself some sort of credential right off the bat, that tipped off to them that I was studying,” she adds.

It only takes one person to notice you

Just as Ossowski predicted, the baseball cap was a conversation starter. 

Instead of making painful small talk while they waited for their pizza order, customers were looking at the hat’s logo and asking: “Oh, American University, do you go there?” 

They were probably being polite and didn’t anticipate much of a response, but anytime Ossowski was asked about the hat she’d launch into her elevator pitch. 

“Yep, I’m a student there studying public relations and marketing,” she recited her rehearsed lines.

“I’m actually currently looking for an internship for the spring if you know anyone who’s hiring. Enjoy your pizza.”

Anyone looking to copy Ossowski should be warned: You’ll get many strange looks while selling yourself at the shopping till of a pizza joint (or a bakery, pet’s store, or clothing boutique for that matter).

“Most of them would just kind of laugh nervously and they didn’t really know what to make of it—because it is a little odd,” she recalls. “But I didn’t care because I knew it would work. I knew this would be the only way to get my first foot in the door.”

Her instincts were on the money. After a month of puzzled expressions, all it took was impressing the right person to conclude her job search.

“Eventually someone took a chance on me because they appreciated my tenacity, grit, and willingness to ask for what I so desperately wanted,” Ossowski adds. “I got the job and my last shift at the shop was the very next week.”

Finally, Ossowski had the tick-box experience she needed to rack up more work experience. One internship led to another and now, a few years on from the fateful moment, she’s on Cisco’s communications team. 

“Those experiences that I had helped me get the job today,” she beams. “If I hadn’t worn that hat and if I hadn’t gotten that first internship, I don’t know, where I would have ended up.”

Graduates: You never know who’s watching you 

Even if you’re not serving DC’s elite, young job seekers shouldn’t sleep on networking—or at the very least putting in the effort—on their student job. 

Not only is it a good use of your time, but it enables prospective employers to see how you operate in a real-life work setting—even if that’s behind a bar or cash register. Ultimately, you never know who’s watching you. 

Unbeknownst to her, Ossowski had already impressed her future boss before even asking him for work.

“The customer before the person who ended up granting me my first internship was a very, very difficult customer. Everything was wrong with their order, it was taking too long, their kids were hungry, it was a terrible situation,” she explained.

“I’ve spent many years in the service industry, so I dealt with them with grace, helped solve their problem and they left happy.”

The hiring manager told the graduate later on during the interview that her handling of the customer was a “big reason why” he gave her his business card.   

It’s why Ossowski also recommends keeping your elevator pitch short and sweet: “It tees off to them that you’ll be able to compose yourself well in a high-level meeting and that you won’t be babbling on.”

And if pitching yourself isn’t something you’re comfortable with, no problem. 

“I love talking to people and I am really good at pitching myself, so those were the strengths that I used in order to help me—use your own personal strengths to stand out in any way that you can,” she says.

“The market is so saturated with such incredible talent, that it takes some creativity in order to stand out from the crowd.”

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