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  • Madison Whitney

‘It’s my dream job’: Campus ‘cashier mom’ treats everyone like family because Auburn is her family

Kristin Fucito was a lonely freshman when she first met her. Four years later she found herself holding a cookie cake and singing Happy Birthday to her.

Every student who walks into Au Bon Pain is consistently greeted with a big smile, even under a mask, and often with a hug. However, Bilgili was not always able to be her smiley self. A couple of years ago, Ayse Bilgili entered an uphill battle with a far too common opponent: breast cancer.

“I have always had hope. After my sickness, I learned always to have hope and always be happy. My cancer gave me something very, very good!” she said.

Bilgili, a Turkish immigrant from Istanbul, is not a name most people know on Auburn’s campus. The over-the-top nice, always smiling ear-to-ear cashier at Au Bon Pain. Bilgili likes to call herself, “cashier mom.”

Growing up in a large, fast-paced city, Bilgili was swift to learn the importance of kindness and putting others first. “We have too many uneducated women in Turkey. They don’t know reading or writing,” she said.

At age 35, Bilgili began volunteering as a teacher. “ I taught them how to read and write. I was happy because they were finally learning. Some of these women were 60 years old.”

Bilgili’s brother-in-law, Sacit “Sarge” Bilgili, began working at Auburn University as a poultry science professor. He invited her family to join him and make the 6,000-mile trek to the plains in 2005. Her friends from home warned her that people in America are despicable, but her experience proved to be different.

One day, when Bilgili was taking care of her two granddaughters, Lara and Maya, her old car broke down in the middle of the street. Confused and scared like a lost puppy, students began to crowd like cattle around her. “Students came rushing over to help me. They even gave me their phone so that I could call my husband. I had never used an iPhone until that day,” Bilgili laughed. “That’s why I feel safe here.”

Bilgili and Auburn are a match made in heaven.

With vigor, she hid her pain from students and returned four days after surgery. Her job was too important.

Aramark, the food service provider for Auburn University, found themselves begging Bilgili not to leave after her diagnosis. Even behind the counter, she was the face of Au Bon Pain. “Everybody knows me. Even the big managers at Aramark know me,” Bilgili said.

After working behind the counter for 10 years, Bilgili got the job offer of her dreams. “I got an email asking to be a cashier.” She thought to herself, “I can be a cashier; this is my dream job!” she cheered. “Sometimes, I think my sickness is good. I get to work in the front now!”

As a cashier, Bilgili gets to showcase her best trait.

“It’s my personality; I am always smiling. They want me here at the cash register,” Bilgili exclaimed with a playful smile.

Bilgili sees Au Bon Pain as one of her biggest blessings. She can work on the same campus as her family. Her daughter, Zeynep Bilgili, is the manager of the Panda Express in Foy Hall, and Zeynep’s husband, Ilker, works in the College of Agriculture.

When the sun rises, she jumps out of bed and commutes to campus for the 6 a.m. opening. After working on her feet all day long, serving as a bright, neon ball of energy for the students, Biligi takes care of her two granddaughters after school.

“I am very proud of my daughter. She opened the Panda Express in Tiger Town. I get to help her by being with my girls and take them to cheerleading and basketball practice. I cook them dinner every night, traditional Turkish dinner of course!” she shared, rubbing her stomach, craving the dinner she had planned for later in the evening.

Bilgili said that each student that passes through her checkout line is her family. This helps her when she misses her son, an Auburn grad, who is a pilot for Turkish airlines. “I love my students, they are like my daughters and the boys are like sons.

The students are so nice to me, sometimes I don’t understand what they are saying, but I know they are saying nice things.”

Upon arrival to the states, Bilgili knew very little English. “I didn’t know English, but I learned. I did it,” she said with excitement. “My daughter will ask me, ‘mom, what do you do when you do not understand the students?’ Well, I just smile and say ‘thank you!” “All students like me. Some like me too much,” she shared, laughing, knowing she was telling the truth.

Bilgili is the poster child, or poster grandma, of hope. Her life was not served on a silver platter. Yet, she gives her all to thousands of strangers daily. Biligi shared that hope means “finding the good in every moment.”

When COVID-19 hit, she could not work or see her favorite students. That was no excuse for her not to make a difference from a distance. “I heard that Auburn University needed help making masks,” Bilgili said.

She went to her friends at the Opelika Sewing Center. “They gave me a sewing machine, and I got to work.” She cut, sewed, washed, and even ironed 300 masks in one week, but not without speaking positivity over each mask.

Lyndsey Berry, a junior at Auburn University, is one of Bilgili’s biggest admirers.

“I always thought she was so kind and so sweet. When I lived on campus, I would go everyday just to get fruit and see her. She didn’t even know who I was. She’s just so kind to everyone,” Berry shared.

Berry is a global studies student and had the chance to interview Bilgili for her cross-cultural class. “I think it is amazing what she has done for herself and her family; she puts everyone first,” Berry said.

Berry explained how there are a lot of places on campus where “the employees are just like us — trying to make it through their day and do not go out of their way to do something special. She is one of my favorite faces to see in the whole wide world. She perks my mood up as soon as I open the doors to Au Bon Pain. I just instantly smile.”

In the last few years, the desperation and hunger for simple generosity has shown a major generation gap in our country.

“I don’t think it matters how old you are. We are in two different stages of our life, but the hope she has and the kindness she has toward everyone. I don’t think she really understands the impact she has on the students,” Berry said.

Every Tuesday and Thursday, Berry finishes class at 2 p.m., and Bilgili clocks out 30 minutes later. They spend that time to grow their friendship further and catch each other up on their busy lives. One of Berry’s favorite parts is when Bilgili tells her stories about Turkey and shares pictures of her young granddaughters.

This is Bilgili’s favorite part of her job.

“They introduce boyfriends, girlfriends, or some come and talk to me about their exams. I like them all. I am the cashier mom.” Although Bilgili had to admit, some students are a little more special than the others.

“One special girl, Kristin Fucito, came to tell me she was engaged,” Bilgili shared with glowing eyes.

They first met during Fucito’s freshman year. “I used to get bagels at Au Bon Pain every morning, right at 7 a.m. when they opened before my 8 a.m. calculus class,” Fucito said. “We got to talk every day since no one was up that early.”

Kristin was a frequent customer and later friended Bilgili on Facebook. After some snooping, Fucito figured out when Bilgili’s birthday was and planned a celebration. Fucito walked into Au Bon Pain with a cookie cake, balloons and presents, singing “Happy Birthday.”

“I cried,” Bilgili said. “I just couldn’t do anything. It was so special.”

“I was at Au Bon Pain so much that they started calling me ‘bagel girl,’” Fucito laughed. “My friend at the time, Jacob, who is now my fiancé, was known as the ‘marble cake man’.” Even though ‘bagel girl’ and ‘marble cake man’ have graduated, they haven’t seen the last of Bilgili. In June 2022, Bilgili will be joining them in Nashville when they say ‘I do.’

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