As a college student with graduation and a minor “future career crisis” looming, I have been reflecting on the way work has been explained to me.

The overworked and overstressed 20-something who lives off coffee comes to mind. Work is something that seemingly consumes your life. Your workplace doesn’t have to address your personal needs, mental and emotional health, or comfort. Lastly, your workplace will rarely reflect your identities. All of these things concern me and make the idea of a professional career undesirable.

I thought that hating my job or, at best, feeling unfulfilled was my inevitable future. But this summer, I flew out to Washington, D.C., and began working at a nonprofit that was filled with people who reflected my identities and were primarily queer women of color.

I had people around me who were sympathetic to my experiences and who were equally passionate about the work we were doing. We didn’t have to explain our identities; we just existed and felt safe and valued.

We often talked about how in past work spaces, we always felt like the “other.” Fear of always being seen as THAT Black, Latinx or Asian girl, THAT queer girl, had stifled all of us from living in our truth. We hid parts of ourselves and tip-toed around conversations that would make us THAT girl again. Feeling like everyone is watching your every move and word is stressful and even gets in the way of taking chances that could greatly benefit your career.

As I entered my internship this summer, I was worried that I was going to experience a typical cutthroat internship where everyone fights for recognition. Instead, we came to work feeling safe enough to be ourselves. As a result, we were more productive and creative in how we accomplished goals. We saw ourselves reflected in one another and made a point of making sure that no one felt stifled in their work. When someone wanted to do a presentation on an issue they cared about, we didn’t see it as competition for attention, but rather an opportunity for collaboration. We all shined because the success of one was a success for us all.

This experience was transformative for me. Showing up to work every day knowing I can be myself without fear of backlash improved the way I worked ten-fold. I was confident enough to seek out opportunities and comfortable enough to admit when I failed. Having this experience has forced me to reconsider how workplaces operate and how we can ensure that people who are often othered can reach their full potential.