Developing Future Compassionate Leaders By Welcoming Refugees

Originally published at Forbes.com

Meet David Corsun and Cheri Young who are innovative leaders in hospitality business education. David is the Director of the Fritz Knoebel School of Hospitality Management at the University of Denver and Cheri is an Associate Professor at the University of Denver. As a couple and colleagues, they have a rare partnership where they have collaborated throughout their academic careers to break convention and help their students understand compassionate leadership from the inside out.

David and Cheri were woke before woke was a thing, always blending business education with lessons of social justice, diversity and inclusion. I have been privileged to be their friend and benefit from their wisdom for many years. David and I went to undergraduate school together at the SC Johnson College of Business at Cornell University where they both earned their doctorates.  I recently met with them to learn about a curriculum they have developed that should become a blueprint for other business schools. The program dubbed RAH (Ready for American Hospitality) opens the minds and hearts undergraduate hospitality students by pairing them with refugees as a way for students to practice human resources management while supporting their refugee protégés in gaining practical employment skills.

One of the first students who participated, now 29 and already a hotel General Manager, attributes his rapid career advancement, in part to RAH. The program gave him the skills to connect authentically with people from other cultures with limited English proficiency and accomplish great work with them.  This ability gave him an advantage over his peers when promotions were handed out, especially early in his career.

Where did the idea for Ready for American Hospitality or RAH come from?

About eight years ago, we were approached by the African Community Center, a refugee resettlement agency here in Denver that needed space for their foodservice job skills program. We knew this was a rare opportunity and we wanted to help. We ended up taking it beyond providing space by redesigning our managing human capital in hospitality class so both programs could be integrated and benefit from each other. (As Cheri worked on curriculum development, David worked on funding the program so it could become more sustainable.)

Tell me about the process of redesigning and honing the program to make it work for students and refugees.

We saw the presence of the RAH students in the building as a chance to bring the human capital class to life. The RAH students were already in our kitchen as part of their training so they could get food service skills.  On the student side, knowing that the human capital class is probably the most difficult course in hospitality education to translate the theories into practical learning, we saw an opportunity to redesign the program.

Over the years, we have developed the program into a win/win for refugees and students in a six-week process. Each student mentor is paired up with one refugee protégé. The students learn hands-on human resource skills including interviewing, writing job descriptions, training and providing performance reviews. The protégés are trained in food handling, food preparation and serving skills. It also gives them a chance to develop their English skills and be better prepared for entering the workforce.

The capstone project for both groups is a wine dinner prepared by award-winning chefs and students in the school’s pop-up restaurant class; with support from their mentors, the refugees staff the dinner, in both front- and back-of-house roles. Also, other projects like the students visiting their protégé’s home or neighborhood, taking public transportation, and going through the exercise of comparing the average wage of an hourly hospitality employee with the expenses a family of four incurs develops authentic and empathic relationships and helps the Fritz Knoebel students recognize their privilege. The refugees often call their student mentors “my first American friend”. The Fritz Knoebel students get a front-row seat on how complex and challenging a refugee’s journey to the US and life here can be and, how grateful they are for the opportunity to be in this country.

This is a lot of work for the mentors and the protégés but the feedback from both groups has been astounding. It has become more than we could have hoped for, both educationally and emotionally. One student reported that it was the best experience he had in the three years he was on campus and we have a tear-jerking ceremony in which the refugees receive their completion certificates that include a University of Denver seal. Last quarter’s protégé cohort included refugees from Iraq, Eritrea and Venezuela.

University of Denver
RAH Participants Spring 2019ANDY BONURA PHOTOGRAPHY

What have been the obstacles along the way?

The main problem has been keeping the program properly funded. With state and federal policy changes the government money we started with dried up and we had to seek other funding sources. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the food and hospitality industry is the largest employer of immigrants, so we were able to gain corporate support. We are very happy to report that thanks to the Marriott Foundation, Hilton Foundation, and several private gifts, the program is now sustainable.

How has this program impacted you?

This program gave us a renewed sense of meaning and purpose. We have learned a lot about what it means to be a refugee and it has challenged us professionally to develop this program. We teach because we want young people to go out into the world and create humane workplaces where they don’t currently exist, and this program supports this goal. The students form deep bonds with their protégés and want the best for them including access to better food, pay and support while getting the respect they richly deserve. After 23 cohorts, RAH has become part of our DNA and has enlivened our institution’s purpose as well. For example, our vision at the Fritz Knoebel School of Hospitality Management at the University of Denver is “Be bold. Do good. Change lives”.

Is there a way that my Forbes.com readers can help? 

There are several ways your readers can engage. First, they can support refugee resettlement agencies in their home communities. These organizations are always looking for volunteers, particularly those with business expertise, who can share their knowledge and financial support.

Second, it is critical that we fight for our government to welcome refugees and asylum seekers, who contribute so much to this country. We benefit so much from having them here – they are not a drain on the country’s resources. As an example, two RAH alumni who completed the program two and four years ago now operate their own restaurants.  

We would also love to have readers join us in February or May for one of our Guest Chef Series Dinners. They can reach out to the school at  dcb.fritzknoebel@du.edu. Finally, we are always looking for financial support to enhance the program and grow it to serve more refugees, asylum seekers, and even immigrants. We would certainly welcome your readers’ financial support. They can give here and specify the RAH Program in the Fritz Knoebel School as the target of their giving.