Chapter 22: Finding the Value in Professional Work Experience

Ann Lara

Ann Lara, Cal Poly Pomona


While in real estate it may all be about location, in the field of hospitality it is all about the experience. Academic learning, while valuable, is not typically enough to secure a management position in the field of hospitality upon graduation. Work-integrated education through the form of internships, part-time jobs, full-time jobs, externships, seasonal work and volunteering are just some ways students may gain experience to be competitive in the current job market. This chapter examines the value of work experience through a case study of an individual student at a large public university who showed a great deal of ambition and determination to work during her studies to help define her own career path. It provides the reader with an example of how one can combine academics, co-curricular activities and part-time work to optimize one’s educational experiences.

Introduction and Literature Review

The question of “what do you want to be when you grow up” is one that is asked of almost every child, adolescent and young adult. Career and college education can start as early as preschool. With so much focus put on career and educational attainment throughout the years, why is that so many young adults feel so unprepared to begin their careers despite the entirety of the internet there to guide them? Couple this feeling with recent headlines that decry the death of the necessity of a college degree (14 Companies That No Longer Require Employees to Have a College Degree, n.d.) for top-paying jobs, it is understandable why students are confused about what they need to achieve to be career-ready.

Before entering the hospitality field, students must be equipped and ready to learn about conflict resolution, professional etiquette, time management, customer service skills, communication, dress standards and leadership through their employment journey. Helping students understand the link between their employment and the benefits they can gain is essential if they are to be able to leverage their experience successfully in the future. Work experience is key for students to be successful. Students must enhance their portfolio of skills and experience during their university years while gaining relevant work experience in their discipline (Wilton 2012). The hospitality industry is vast and varied, many entry-level jobs do not require even a high school diploma, making it easy for students to qualify for them.

Work experience is just one component of the vast college experience. Co-curricular activities, clubs, organizations, trips and more are often at the centre of the fond memories students carry with them after college. We know that co-curricular activities are important for providing opportunities to work on skills like teamwork, leadership and other essential career competencies (Kumar & Arockiasamy, 2012). Looking at the correlation between the value perception of co-curricular activities and personality traits like self-esteem, independence, self-acceptance and self-disclosure, we can see that co-curricular activities can boost an individual’s potential in proving student’s development in key essential skills. By blending co-curricular with academics, the university can develop the personality of the whole student, while having a large impact on the student’s interpersonal skills and personality development. This point, furthered by Mulrooney (2017), means helping students understand the value of co-curricular activities will help them towards the ability to be able to demonstrate the key essential skills required by employers.

Furthering the value of co-curricular experiences on future employment outcomes, Irwin et. al (2019) add that while some variation occurs across different types of activities, 65% of employers surveyed said the co-curricular experience was valued. Less than 50% of students and graduates reported using these activities as a strategy to increase their employability, a lost chance to sharpen the soft skills that makeup career readiness. Students must get the skills they need for the positions they are seeking, including soft skills, through their experiences inside the classroom, outside the classroom and through entry-level positions.

Olivia’s personal journey

The main case in this chapter present’s ‘Olivia’s’ personal journey. It is written in first person as it expresses the path she has taken during her academic career.

As a senior at a large public institution in California, I count myself lucky to be where I am. I come from a hard-working and loving Mexican family of four. My father is a tile craftsman and my mom an elementary school librarian. Growing up my family did not have a lot of money but with help from my extended family and friends we managed to keep afloat. Education was always a priority and a college education one day was always an expectation for me. As only the second person in my family to attend college, I am the first to pursue a degree in Hospitality Management. I became a hospitality management major because of my love of travel and the magic I feel when visiting hotels and exploring new places. After an internet search of “hotel college degrees” led to hospitality management, I searched local public universities for the major and applied. When I was accepted, I was excited to begin to explore hospitality, but nervous about the course load, making new friends and getting involved in a new school.

Practical Learning

As I began my first-year, I jumped in feet first to co-curricular activities. Joining several clubs, I became highly active in student organizations. Leveraging the skills learned as part of these co-curricular activities, I was able to secure several part-time positions in the hospitality field. Work coupled with a full-time class schedule was a lot to manage but I made it work through organization, grit and determination. During my first year in college, I attended an industry immersion trip that crystallized for me the love of travel and adventure. It was a trip with the first-year group I was a part of to Seattle, Washington and it was my first-time traveling without my family. When I arrived in Seattle, I gained confidence as I navigated the ground transportation network, found the hotel to meet up with the group and walked around exploring when I had free time. Through a series of tours with alumni at hospitality venues all over the city, I fell in love all over again with the major. I knew I had the right major, but still found I needed some additional supports to find success during my time at college and beyond.

The first hospitality position I had in college was as a banquet server at a regional event centre. With the hours concentrated on the weekends, I took on a position as a promotional assistant at a professional sports stadium, as well as assisted with on-campus sporting events to round out my hours and assist with needed income. When a position came open at a restaurant inside a local resort, I leveraged my food and beverage experience from the event centre into a hostess, then food runner position. I longed to experience the front desk and when no positions were available at the resort, I leveraged my resort experience in the restaurant to join a national select service chain at the front desk.

Co-curricular activities and clubs have been another source of inspiration me. These experiences helped me find great jobs for work experience, as well as expand my professional network. Opportunities to travel and visit beautiful locations throughout North America were provided as part of the offerings available to me and the students involved in these student organizations. It was through traveling and visiting different types of hotels, restaurants, private clubs and attractions that I have been able to expand my knowledge of the types of jobs available in the hospitality industry and learn about different cultures.

Counted among my greatest achievements are receiving scholarships and a sponsored trip to Seattle, Washington. The trip was organized by a first-year experience club and I found so much value in it, I stayed on as a Peer Advisor to assist students in subsequent years. With this leadership experience, as well the work experience that many industry scholarships rely on, I was able to win scholarships from multiple professional organizations. This money has helped fund my education, with my work and co-curricular experience at the core of the scholarship essays.

This position at the select service chain hotel has provided a wealth of experience, knowledge and challenges. When recent budget cuts led to cutbacks in staff, I took on more and more duties that a traditional front-desk agent would not usually complete. This additional experience, while initially undesired, made me more marketable for positions in the future. The extra workload kept increasing and when management began to schedule me against my availability every week. Deciding to move on from that position was a difficult decision, but once it was made, I was unstoppable. I started relying on my networks and skills I learned from my coursework and co-curricular activities. All this during a bout of record-high rate of unemployment in the hospitality field and I was able to secure two offers, in both cases beating out many applicants.

Having multiple jobs and no way to get there, my mom, dad and brother played a large role in my success by providing me with transport to and from my jobs and school. Living in the suburban sprawl of Southern California, there is little to no public transportation. Factor in the hours that my shifts are, there was no way I could physically get to all the places I needed to be without them. Not being in the financial position to purchase a vehicle, I relied heavily on them to help me. Transportation time was also homework and nap time, as my schedule was full of working, co-curricular activities and classes.

Another challenge was getting a professional wardrobe. One resource that made a big impact was the Clothes Closet at the Career Center. The Clothes Closet provides free gently used professional clothing to students on campus. Items are donated by faculty, staff, employers and the community. Students can take a limited number of pieces each semester to keep. Before going to the Clothes Closet, I felt anxious for interviews because I did not own a blazer and did not have the financial means to obtain a professional clothing wardrobe. The Clothes Closet gave me access to free professional clothing items like jackets, blouses, slacks and more. The professional clothing that was provided to me from the Clothes Closet helped me showcase my professional personality through my wardrobe and helped secure positions in the hospitality industry.

My supportive family played a large role in my success, from transportation to preparing meals. This helped free up time for me to focus on the part-time jobs I held in the restaurant, hotel, events and sporting events industries. My ability to speak fluent Spanish has greatly helped me move forward in my hospitality career in the Southern California market. Being able to communicate with guests and employees in their preferred language has enabled me to gain the trust of those around me and provide clear communication.

The latest career move was to return the front desk at the resort that I was previously employed at was fuelled by my personal desire to give back to my community. I will be working the front desk, but I also have the added benefit of training with human resources to join their team within the next six-months. The four-years of work experience I have gained places me in an optimal position to pursue a career in the field of human resources within a hospitality organization when I graduate.

The desire to work in human resources stems from wanting to help the community of housekeepers, kitchen workers that are primarily Spanish speaking in Southern California. Often human resource professionals do not speak fluent Spanish and I have translated on many occasions for those at work. By providing them knowledge and information, they can support their families better and become better employees. The work experience, combined with the knowledge, skills and abilities I gained from co-curricular involvement is key to my success in my post-graduation endeavours.

Reflections and Recommendations

The author of this chapter now offers some reflection on the case and lessons learned.

From an educator’s perspective, Olivia’s experience in college was as close to ideal as it gets for many students. Even though her family was not able to provide much financial support, they provided her with a huge amount of emotional support throughout her journey. Importantly, she got involved and made sure the opportunities she wanted became available to her through hard work, dedication and commitment. Her co-curricular experience and work experience have continued to evolve and grow over time. She has many options for her future career path and it is in large part due to the work she has already put in.

The year Olivia joined the college, the first-year student group was just getting started. Putting together this group as the faculty support, it was a challenging first year as she was one of only 8 students that year that attended all the meetings and events that happened throughout the year. Today, that same group attracts close to 30 students each year. It is important to ask, what was the drive for Olivia to take a chance on this fledgling organization? The Roman philosopher Seneca is quoted as saying “luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity”. Helping engage students to prepare for making their own luck is at the heart of our work as educators. Her preparation met an amazing opportunity and she created her luck time and time again.

This theme carried her throughout her college years. Working with students, it is our position to push them to become their best self. For Olivia, when one position did not offer enough hours, she added another one. When she wanted to shift into hotels, she translated her food and beverage experience into a hotel food and beverage department. She continued to create and author her own experience by consistently showing up and putting in the work. As much as it would be easy for us to say Olivia is one of the lucky ones where everything always works out for her, the answer is far from it. Between the ups, there are plenty of downs, but a steadfast resolve to continue to do better and grow keeps her moving in the right direction.

Leaning on faculty and student services professionals is an important ingredient in the recipe of success for any college student. Faculty and the student services professionals work together at the college to support students and their goals. Student services professionals can provide the tools needed to help students achieve them. Importantly, there is no need to reinvent the wheel each time a student needs help. They have seen it all before and have figured out what tips to give to help students through it. Olivia was lucky in the fact that she had been advised and had the follow through to rely on these individuals and ask for advice, support and encouragement. The resources faculty and student services professionals offer to every student enrolled at the college are there to support their success. Students should make it a critical task of every semester to seek out these folks and take into consideration the resources they provide.

Finally, we can help students to be ready for whatever adventures come their way. We must stress to students that you never know what direction a part-time job will open for you, the volunteer experience you signed up for, or how the interview will turn out. No job is too small, no title is too low, hard work is hard work and the hospitality industry appreciates and recognizes those who put their time in to learn critical knowledge, skills and abilities. Working and being involved on campus teaches the critical career competencies that are required not only today but for the future. College is more than coursework; it is a series of experiences and opportunities that will shape the rest of your life.


The hospitality industry is like no other industry on earth. It exists in every corner of the world, has vastly diverse opportunities in many different segments of the market and continues to evolve. The opportunity to receive a degree in this field is an exciting chance to bring a lifetime of happy memories for those you serve. College coursework while critical is just a small portion of what is needed to become successful in the field when you graduate. Research shows work experience, as well as co-curricular experience, is not only nice to have, it is essential to the success of the graduate when seeking a post-graduation position. Olivia is one of the lucky ones that she unlocked this magic her first semester in college, but it is never too late to join in on gaining these essential skills that are highly sought after by hiring managers. If you are in your first semester or last, take the time to develop the relationships, the work experience, co-curricular involvement, the work you put in will come back to you many times over.


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Irwin, A., Nordmann, E., & Simms, K. (2019). Stakeholder perception of student employability: does the duration, type and location of work experience matter? Higher Education, 78(5), 761–781.

Kumar, G. N. S., & Arockiasamy, S. (2012). Research Papers Parental Influence on Psychological Value Perception of Co-Curricular Activities : It ’ S Links With Improving. 6(1), 2012.

Mulrooney, H. M. (2017). Exploring participation in co-curricular activities among undergraduate students. New Directions in the Teaching of Physical Sciences, 12(12), 1–10.

Wilton, N. (2012). The impact of work placements on skills development and career outcomes for business and management graduates. Studies in Higher Education, 37(5), 603-620.


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Practical Learning in Hospitality Education Copyright © 2021 by Ann Lara is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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