Academics and Research

Class matches hospitality students with refugees for a lesson in managing human capital

Refugees from Denver's African Community Center confer at the 2014 Public Good Gala. Photo: Wayne Armstrong

Refugees from Denver’s African Community Center confer at the 2014 Public Good Gala. Photo courtesy Daniels College of Business

One of the most meaningful relationships of University of Denver senior Emily Proctor’s college career was not with a professor or fellow student, but with an African refugee named Jeanine whom she mentored in winter 2014 as part of the Managing Human Capital in Hospitality course at DU’s Fritz Knoebel School of Hospitality Management.

“She had moved here a week before I met her,” says Proctor, a hospitality major in the Daniels College of Business. “She was thrown into it. The fact that people are taken from their homes because of a terrible situation — it’s heartbreaking. You realize that there are people out there that need help, and there are ways [to do that], even if they seem small—training someone how to serve plates can make a difference in how they live their life here.”

The award-winning class was born in 2012, when Cheri Young, an associate professor in the Knoebel School, established a relationship with Denver’s African Community Center (ACC). The ACC helps refugees who have fled to America after suffering persecution in their home countries. The Knoebel students work directly with refugees through ACC’s Commercial Food Safety and Service Training Program, a 90-hour course that provides hands-on education about food service sanitation, customer service and American work culture.

The program has garnered acclaim for the way it connects students with the world around them: In 2013 it was named Best Educational Innovation in the MKG Group’s Worldwide Hospitality Awards; and the Knoebel School has been visited by representatives from the U.S. State Department who hope to use the unique public-private partnership as a model in other resettlement cities.

“The opportunity for our hospitality management students to work with people from very diverse backgrounds is immense,” Young says. “This innovative program allows our students to get real-world experience by acting as employment mentors to the ACC refugees. The hospitality industry often is a gateway to employment for those with limited English-language skills or education. I want my students to learn that caring for your employees is the right thing to do and ultimately can increase the profitability of a business.”

The students are mentoring new arrivals from Sri Lanka, Ethiopia, Somalia, South Sudan, Liberia, Congo and elsewhere on job-hunting skills, interviewing techniques and the various skills needed to work in the food-service and hotel industries. The Knoebel students are learning management skills such as developing training programs and employee manuals and conducting job interviews. The course culminates in the “Public Good Gala,” a food- and wine-pairing event that lets the Knoebel students and their protégés show what they’ve learned. This year’s sold-out gala, featuring a four-course meal prepared by Knoebel students and local chef Paul Reilly, of beast + bottle, is scheduled for Feb. 19 in the Joy Burns Center.

“The greatest thing about this program is that DU is so focused on dealing with and working with diversity, and I can’t think of a program that does that better than what this program does,” Proctor says. “This program honestly was one of the greatest highlights of my college career. What I took away is that happiness does not come from what you get, but rather from what you give, and I think I’ll take that with me the rest of my life.”


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