It’s a Friday afternoon right after HofUSA has opened its doors to the student body. Two or three groups of early customers are scattered around the Dave and Busters-style eatery, an innocuous sampling of what’s to come. Employees are still on the down-low, waiting for the flood of drunk, hungry and rowdy students who inevitably will materialize later in the evening.
I’m sitting across from Karen Orellana, a HofUSA supervisor, in the quiet doldrums of early opening traffic. “The Fridays start off, as you see now, slow. Not a lot of people come,” Orellana said. “After a while it starts picking up and then at the end, everyone comes inside at the last hour and we get a mob rush.”
“After 10 p.m. is when we’re really busy, because that’s when everybody is leaving the bars.”
In this perpetual stream of students, all possessing varying degrees of hunger, lucidity and discontent, Orellana acts as an unfailing anchor, there to keep the ship steady and the operation running smoothly. Not one for shirking work, Orellana often takes orders as well and this is how most students know her.
“I like to help them out. It’s not like I just like to stand there like a regular supervisor and just watch them. I actually get down and dirty with them,” Orellana said.
Orellana has worked at Hofstra since she was 16, moving up from a cashier position to her current position as supervisor of HofUSA. Many of the Hofstra students she’s befriended have moved off campus as upperclassmen or graduate students and don’t often go to HofUSA anymore. Still, her constant presence behind the counter has made her a familiar face to a large part of Hofstra’s student body.
On the student body, Orellana said, “Some of them are pretty cool. Some of them, we really get along. We have personal relationships out of the job, with a few. Some of them just stick to themselves. Some of them can be rude.”
When asked to elaborate, Orellana said, “They’re just a bit snotty, some of them. But most of them are really nice. But [for] some, if something doesn’t come out the way they want it, they give us attitude off the bat, but we try to not deal with that. But I like working with them, I like getting to know them. Some of them, we do build relationships. They come in and they already know my name; I already know what they’re going to get.”
As a HofUSA supervisor, Orellana oversees employees and makes sure jobs – such as cooking and taking orders – are performed correctly. At this, Orellana excels, due to her years of experience. “I know this job like the back of my hand,” she said.
Orellana, who was promoted to supervisor last year, attributes a large part of her success to her manager, Ian John, who helped her as a young employee at HofUSA.
“I would say he [John] is like a father figure. He was here since I started and he gave me the opportunity to move up, so I thank him for that,” Orellana said. “He showed me more things that I probably would’ve never learned.”
Early on, Orellana relied on her mom to pick her up from Hofstra’s campus after her shift was over. “My mom would drop me off and pick me up at 2:30 a.m.,” Orellana said. “She hated that, she would be asleep and I would call her to pick me up at 2:30 a.m. … That’s why she got me a car; she said she got sick and tired of picking me up.”
When she first began working at Hofstra, many students couldn’t believe that she was in high school. “They wouldn’t believe that I was 16 years old. They would ask ‘isn’t it past your bedtime?’”
Today, Orellana still projects a disposition of uncanny maturity. Of all the students who go into HofUSA on a weekly basis, most don’t know that she’s in their age group. When students see her supervising employees, and maintaining the cash register, most assume that Orellana is their senior rather than their peer.
On her peer group Orellana said, “I actually have a couple friends here who go to Hofstra. They come here all the time; they’re freshman. They’re a couple of my old high school friends who go here. But most of them went to Nassau because it’s local and it’s cheaper.”
Now 19 years old, Orellana is studying to be a mortician at nearby Nassau Community College (NCC). While working full-time as a HofUSA supervisor, Orellana simultaneously tries to balance her part-time studies as a second semester freshman at NCC. On her work and study balance, Orellana said, “It’s pretty hard, leaving here and then having to go to morning classes. I get out of here at 2:30 a.m. and then go to a class at 8 in the morning. You would have to at least wake up two hours earlier. To be honest sometimes I fall asleep in class. I try not to, but it tends to happen. But as long as I get it done, it’s fine.”
Luckily, Orellana has experience balancing work and study from high school. Her interest in mortuary science was established early. “I already knew what I wanted to do when I was in high school. As soon as I hit junior year, that’s what I decided. I was going to commit to it,” Orellana said.
“I looked at it because it’s a job that you’re never going to run out of – everybody dies,” she said. “And it doesn’t scare me, and I didn’t find anything else more appealing to my personality. I just wanted to do something outside the box, something nobody would do.”
“I feel like I’m mentally prepared for it,” Orellana said. “Because most people would break down; I feel like I wouldn’t break down.”
On her parent’s reaction to her career choice, Orellana said, “My parents find it weird, but as long as it prepares [me] for the future and I have a good career going ahead for myself, that’s what they want. As long as I’m doing better than them when I grow up, they’re fine with it.”
Orellana’s parents are immigrants from El Salvador who met on Long Island in the 70s. She has three siblings: an older brother who runs a cleaning company for offices and two younger sisters, one in elementary school and one about to graduate high school. Her father owns a construction company and her mother works as a custodian at Uniondale High School, Orellana’s alma mater. Orellana also has family working at Hofstra. Her aunt works at Sbarro on campus and her uncle works here as a custodian.
While talking about her family, Orellana proudly emphasizes the progress she’s observed in her family since her childhood. Her father, discontent with the construction companies he had worked for, ventured out on his own.
“I’ve seen my parents’ progress. I remember when I was little, I used to live in an apartment. It’s like a blur, but I still kind of remember. I see my dad now – he owns two houses, one here and now he has a summer house in Florida. He has all these trucks for his company and all these people working for him instead of him working for somebody,” Orellana said.
“I’ve just seen him go from the struggle that we went through to where we are now. He could have stayed where he wanted to, but he wanted to do something else.”
In regard to her future plans, Orellana said, “I hope to get a degree, help them out. Give them the things that they gave us, me and my siblings, to put them in even a better place than they put us.”
Orellana intends to spend two years at NCC before continuing her degree at a four-year institution.
“For now, I’ll probably stay here. But I haven’t looked for anything. I’m so used to the job and I’m so used to the people. I’m the type of person who doesn’t like starting things. So I’d just rather stay here. It depends on the four-year school I want to go to; if it’s here or if it’s somewhere else. If not, I’ll probably stay here and continue to serve you guys.”