With an exciting position lined up and aspirations of becoming a Central Florida small business owner, graduating senior Valerie Contreras is excited for her future in the hospitality industry.
“I love Orlando, and I love working in hospitality and all that it entails,” says Valerie Contreras, Fall 2021 UCF graduate.
“I love Orlando, and I love working in hospitality and all that it entails,” says Contreras, who is graduating this fall with a bachelor’s degree in hospitality management from the Rosen College of Hospitality Management. “The constant stream of new faces you see every day, the energy from different employees, the ability to make someone’s day flip in a positive way. This is the work that I was born to do.”
Contreras is one of the Rosen College’s post-pandemic success stories. Despite an economy that is still recovering from COVID-19, the Rosen College estimates that more than 95% of this semester’s graduating class will have obtained employment ahead of UCF’s Fall 2021 commencement. The college’s administration and faculty played integral roles in Contreras and other fall graduates finding success.
Following commencement, Contreras plans to enter the Manager-in-Training Programme at Four Seasons. The salaried 12-month internship program provides real-world leadership experiences for recent graduates pursuing careers in the hospitality industry. Contreras secured the internship through the luxury hotel brand’s recruiters, who regularly stationed a recruitment table on Rosen’s campus during the pandemic.
Earlier this year, Contreras was one of only six students in the nation awarded a $25,000 scholarship through restaurateur Guy Fieri’s Help Rebuild Restaurants Grant. In the years ahead, she plans to combine Fieri’s scholarship funding with her leadership training to open a cafe in Orlando. Contreras first heard of the grant through her Rosen College faculty mentors, who strongly urged her to apply.
Contreras has come a long way since the pandemic recession. In February 2020, she received lay-off notices from both of her jobs within days of each other. Faced with the sudden loss of employment, she was forced to move back to her hometown in Arizona to live with her parents.
Contreras calls that period the most difficult of her life, and she was not alone. During the recession, the hospitality and tourism industries were among the hardest impacted. By the end of 2020, the pandemic had eliminated more than 3.5 million jobs in those industries alone. Recognizing the challenging circumstances their students would be facing, Rosen leadership stepped up to assist students directly.
“Rosen met the challenges of the pandemic head on by pivoting existing resources and developing new ways to get our students industry experience,” says Alan Fyall, the associate dean of Academic Affairs and interim chair of the Department of Tourism, Events and Attractions.
“Rosen met the challenges of the pandemic head on by pivoting existing resources and developing new ways to get our students industry experience,” says Alan Fyall, the associate dean of Academic Affairs and interim chair of the Department of Tourism, Events and Attractions. “Despite the dire conditions that COVID-19 presented, we wanted to put our students in contact with the right people in the right places to secure personal and professional growth.”
Rosen’s leadership took steps to expand existing networking and internship resources and establish new, innovative programs to better connect students with opportunities. Their efforts were integral in students navigating the challenging job market.
Rosen added a full day of virtual meetings to its Fall 2021 Career Fair, making the event a two-day occasion. Nearly 30 additional business entities exclusively attended the fully virtual day, creating more than 600 additional networking interactions between students and industry contacts. With approximately 800 students engaging with representatives from more than 70 entities, the Fall 2021 Career Fair was Rosen’s largest and most successful.
Launched in the summer of 2020, Rosen began offering the Professional Rosen Experiential Portfolio (PREP). The program provides students with hundreds of hours of internship experiences and career exploration opportunities. Since the program’s inception, an estimated 1,600 students — more than half of Rosen’s student population —have taken part in P.R.E.P.
A large percentage of Rosen’s more than 12,000 alumni are actively involved with some form of mentorship. These efforts include the CFHLA Student Lounge Meet and Greet, which allows students to meet informally with leaders from various hotels and resorts. Also, alumni joined Rosen faculty to produce the webinar series, “Research, Recovery and Reskill.” The series focuses on sharpening and retooling skills for the anticipated changes in the hospitality market as a result of COVID-19.
The ultimate goal of Rosen’s leadership team was to create a steady stream of Rosen College success stories, like Contreras.
Walking away from UCF, Contreras says she will miss both her professional and personal connections connections to Rosen. Throughout her time at UCF, she was actively involved with the Pineapple Theater Club, the Rosen College Leadership Council and the Tau Sigma National Honor Society, among other professional student organizations.
A self-proclaimed people person with an entrepreneurial spirit, Contreras says she hopes to open her cafe within the next five years. She envisions a warm, welcoming environment, where Orlandoans from all walks of life can come together as a community.
“You can be inspired, you can write, you can read, you can express yourself with open mic nights and slam poetry. We can have events where you can just have community,” Contreras says. “My cafe will provide a safe space, a place of solstice for the individual to stop being so “on the go.”