Smart High School Program Creating Tomorrow's Lodging Pros
A great program acts as a go between to expose high schoolers to the industry we all love. And its created many of today’s executives too.
Tuesday, August 20, 2013
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For Luisa Mendoza- Chavez, who was a Florida 10th grader at the time, it was a match made not in heaven but in high school. The Broward County student had her heart set on following a career path that would someday let her provide for her parents, who'd left their own successful jobs behind when they brought her, at age 4, from Colombia to the U.S. for a brighter future.
Her enrollment in the Academy of Hospitality and Tourism at Plantation High School was the beginning of just the lifelong relationship she’d hoped for: Today, at 29, Mendoza-Chavez is engaged in even more successful match-making, this time as an industry professional. She oversees short-term corporate housing in the New York City area for Furnished Quarters, which provides rental apartments for consultants, companies’ employees and others needing housing while on out-of-town work assignments.
Her job as a corporate sales manager there flows directly from her studies at the hospitality academy, created by the nonprofit, educational National Academy Foundation. The academy, and hundreds of those like it in other urban public high schools around the country, provides a targeted curriculum geared toward both career readiness and college readiness. The academies provide internships, job shadowing and networking opportunities along the way to enrich the experience.
Mendoza-Chavez recently relocated from Florida to New York, with NAF’s help and referrals, after her husband accepted a job opportunity there. She describes her current work at Furnished Quarters as being “where the hotel industry meets the real-estate industry.” She has never felt happier, more fortunate – or more prepared.
Hospitality is one of five sectors covered by NAF’s array of academies, which also focus on engineering, finance, information technology and health sciences. More than 500 of them operate around the country, focusing on various professions, with 74 of them providing tourism and hospitality instruction to 8,500 students in schools in 20 states, including Washington D.C., according to Dana Pungello, NAF’s communications manager. Typically, said Pungello, these small specialized learning communities are located in high schools and attract students in grades 9 through 12, she said. Some 85 percent of its graduates go on to post-secondary education; others enter the military or begin their professional careers.
NAF’s academy involvement in the Miami-Dade County Public School system has been robust, said Ann Fields, NAF facilitator for the School Choice and Parental Options Office. “Hospitality is the number one industry in South Florida,” she said, and the academies’ involvement has grown along with support from the local tourism industry, which is represented on the academy advisory board, she said. Miami has 51 NAF academies, she said, and 15 of them are hospitality and tourism learning centers, where youngsters attend such classes as Intro to Hospitality, Marketing and Management and even Destination Geography.
The Hilton Miami Airport, the Loews Miami Beach Hotel, Hyatt Regency Miami, the Marriott, Jungle Island, the Island Queen, Carnival Cruise Lines, and the Miami Seaquarium have all opened their doors to academy interns, she said. But the doors swing wide again when those former interns become job applicants. “The Loews Miami Beach Hotel has 16 of our graduates in management positions that range from out-of-high-school career entry positions to college graduates,” Fields said. “So it is a win-win for companies.”
Fields credits business partnerships for keeping the academies and their graduates buoyant. “Our advisory board members are not just names on a letterhead, they provide us with lots of opportunities, whether it is shadow day, field trips, or work opportunities that culminate from the internship.”
Mendoza- Chavez’s internship, when she was in the 11th grade, was at the Greater Fort Lauderdale/Broward County Convention Center, and it set her life on course when she met a treasured mentor – general manager Mark Gatley - who she described as her “angel in a business suit.” She graduated high school in 2002 and eventually returned to the convention center as a full time sales manager - but not before she’d taken Gatley’s advice and had worked at various hotels and hospitality businesses in the metropolitan area to learn what makes South Florida hospitality tick.
“He wanted me to understand how the whole industry ties together,” she said.
And the hotels, indeed, act as real-world classrooms. “What we do, and I think what stands out the most, is that we give high school students real-life interaction with hotels. They get real-life experiences,” said Betsy Kiss, senior director of workplace strategies for Marriott International, which is active in the advisory boards of numerous high school academies. “We do things like job shadow days, we have our professionals go into the high schools as guest speakers, we provide summer internships. And we provide partial scholarships to college for NAF students. They apply and we evaluate applications and we award scholarships for that.”
Hotels “have a stake in making sure the next generation of workers is ready to contribute and take over the jobs and make the future a bright place,” said Pungello. “Something like a Marriott is an excellent example of a partner,” she said, because of the varied opportunities Marriott, as a national partner, makes available.
“This prepares future leaders for hospitality,” said Kiss, who said the partnership pays off well for Marriott too. “We look very favorably at people who apply to work for us who are NAF alumni. We have some nice success stories.”
And sometimes there are even unexpected pairings that evolve along the path to a successful hospitality career. Mendoza-Chavez found that out herself 10 years ago. While attending a NAF alumni gathering in Phoenix in 2003, she was introduced to Jose Chavez, the man she would eventually marry. The couple are now parents of a little girl. Best of all, Luisa Mendoza-Chavez has now been able to let her parents retire and move from Florida to join her family in New York.
“NAF was really the pinnacle of my life,” she said. “It gave me my career and I found my husband because of it. Whoever would have thought joining this academy would do all that?”