Nearly 8,000 miles of land and sea separate students at UCF’s Rosen College of Hospitality Management from the students at the Akilah Institute for Women in Kigali, Rwanda, but that did not stop Assistant Professor Manuel Rivera’s event management class from reaching out to their Rwandan counterparts.

The event planning students will soon conclude what turned out to be a semester of service.

After receiving a visit from two of the Akilah Institute’s hospitality students, Rivera’s class felt inspired to give back.

“These women have been through tragedies; they’re survivors of genocide,” event management student Zachary Warman said. “Most of them don’t have family, but they have taken that tragedy and turned it into something beautiful.”

Rivera proposed a class project to his students with the purpose of raising funds and collecting school supplies for the institute which aims to equip women with an education that leads to meaningful careers in Rwanda’s fastest growing economic sector — tourism.

“Rwanda is definitely growing. A lot of the major hotel chains are moving into Rwanda right now,” Warman said. “These women will be the leaders of Rwandan hospitality.”

Rivera, who holds a Ph.D. in hospitality education, has conducted research on employing tourism as a catalyst for development in Latin American countries like Nicaragua and Ecuador.

“I’m very interested in things that we can do to alleviate poverty,” Rivera said. “Poverty is not just a monetary issue; it’s about focusing on the capabilities of people.”

Rivera said the fundraising initiative was an excellent opportunity for his students to get involved in a project that is both relevant to their studies and that showcases the importance of social responsibility.

“The hospitality industry goes far beyond the boundaries of Orlando,” Rivera said. “You could see that these people, just like our students, have a great entrepreneurial spirit.”

“When Dr. Rivera presented this idea to the class, we were all so drawn to it because the hospitality community is very international,” Warman said.

“We attend one of the best hospitality schools in the nation, so it’s our social responsibility to help those in need gain from the experiences we’ve been given,” he said.

The event planning students immediately went to work constructing collection bins for donors to deposit supplies into at a local grocery store and hospital.

They went from class to class informing their fellow students of the Akilah Institute’s purpose and needs.

They set up a table with displays on campus to raise awareness for their cause and sell t-shirts which they designed.

Donations included everything from textbooks to calculators, DVDs to secondhand cell phones and vast amounts of school supplies.

In less than a month, Rivera’s students raised nearly $1,600 in monetary donations and collected numerous boxes of supplies valued at $1,000.

Jordan O’Daniel is a senior majoring in event management. The 22-year-old Melbourne native assisted with the project’s marketing efforts.

O’Daniel said one of the greatest challenges her class faced was persuading people to give.

“It was hard getting people to donate to something they had never heard of, especially since it is across the world,” she said. “But eventually they came around.”

“It’s rewarding; you gain something out of it,” O’Daniel said. “You’re not just making money and doing business; it’s deep.”

Anna Cheng is double majoring in hospitality and event management. The 22-year-old was born in Hong Kong, but was raised in Venezuela.

“I understand it’s hard to give with the economy, but one dollar doesn’t hurt anyone,” she said. “It makes a big difference for them.”

Cheng, who is bilingual, said the project has inspired her to pursue other avenues of service.

She said she hopes to one day teach English and Spanish to people in India and all throughout Africa.

Event management and marketing student Jennifer Bacca helped market and promote the fundraising efforts.

The 21-year-old said she learned that raising awareness about an event is key.

“You can put on an event, but if you haven’t promoted it, you’re not going to have a great turn out,” she said. “We did our best to reach the most people and we did a great job.”

“Even though these are rough times, we all still have a little to give to people that don’t have anything,” Bacca said. “Giving is very rewarding.”

“This is the first year that I’ve taught this class,” Rivera said. “It really exceeded my expectations.”

“The efforts they put forth, the ideas that came forward and the way they executed it was remarkable,” he said. “I’m extremely proud of them.”

Source: Orlando Sentinel, Dec. 2, 2011, UCF hospitality students empower Rwanda’s future women leaders, by Jason Kelly, special to the Sentinel, UCF student:,0,5876656.story?page=1.