A question looms larger for every time Selina Mullenax ’12 says, “I love my job.” She repeats the phrase three times in the first five minutes of a conversation about her work at CORT Events. Mullenax uses words like “exciting” and “fun” to describe how she personalizes furniture and decor for clients.
“We have to be creative,” she says, “because everyone expects the next event to be better than the previous one.”
The task, then, is progressively tougher. Mullenax has designed spaces in the past few months for a celebrity-packed Super Bowl party and a VIP experience at the Formula One race in Miami. She had to make everything just right for people who could have chosen to attend any party or event in town.
“I enjoy the challenge,” Mullenax says of the rising expectations from year to year.
Her career itself has been on an upward trajectory since graduating from UCF with a degree in hospitality and event management in 2012. Among her accolades: UCF’s 30 Under 30 Award, Alumna of the Year by the Rosen College of Hospitality Management, the BizBash 40 Under 40 List, and president-elect of the Orlando Chapter of Meeting Professionals International.
Which leads to the question: Why is Mullenax returning to her alma mater in the fall as a student?
“I understand why someone would ask that,” Mullenax says. “The events industry has changed a lot in the past 10 years, into a niche all its own. There’s an opportunity for people who want to lead the change. It’s no surprise that UCF is out in front.”
Mullenax will be among 30 professionals who will make up the first cohort in the nation’s first online master’s program in event leadership. They’ve applied for the coveted spots from around the country (which explains why the program is online), and they all echo Mullenax when she says: “I know anything the Rosen College produces will be next level.”
Rosen’s hospitality program is rated No. 1 in the country and No. 2 in the world, according to the latest ShanghaiRankings of universities internationally. The master’s in event leadership will make UCF stand apart even further.
“We’re in the epicenter of hospitality and events,” says Associate Professor Jeannie Hahm ’04MS ’12PhD, who collaborated with professors Michelle Holm and Deborah Breiter-Terry to develop the new program.
“The location gives us the advantage of collecting expertise from people who live in the hospitality and events space every day,” Hahm says. “Central Florida is where everything is happening, so it’s where everyone looks for direction.”
UCF’s 50-person Event Management Advisory Board is a dream team of professionals from hotels, restaurants, theme parks, and sports and entertainment venues. They work on events as far-ranging as conventions and weddings to World Cup soccer and the Special Olympics. They’re keenly aware of the skillsets needed to create first-class events — including technology, risk management and sustainability — without ever losing focus of the “wow” factor.
“A formal graduate level program focused on developing leadership skills for senior-level event management professionals will allow this dynamic industry to grow and evolve beyond our current vision,” says Joe Dzaluk, president and CEO of the Special Olympics 2022 USA Games, which will be hosted in Orlando in June. “It is important that graduates have an advanced ability to critically think through existing and emerging challenges, analyze and assess global industry trends and market forces, and have the proficiency to build and execute a strategic plan.”
Hahm is no stranger to inaugural graduate programs at UCF. In fact, her role with the master’s in event leadership is worthy of a little background. She grew up in Seoul, South Korea, and earned her first college degree there — a bachelor’s in social work. The social work had its rewards, but it also weighed on Hahm emotionally, so she took a job helping to open a hotel in the late 1990s. A plummeting economy kept the hotel from ever opening, but the work gave her a taste of the hospitality and events industry.
“I never forgot it,” Hahm says.
When she and her husband eventually moved to Orlando, Hahm found out about the Rosen College at UCF.
“I had no idea there was a school for hospitality management, so I started on another bachelor’s degree because my mother used to tell me, ‘Always further your education if you have the chance,’ ” she says.
Early in her first semester at UCF, a professor told Hahm she instead might like to be part of the school’s first master’s cohort in hospitality and tourism management. For field work, she volunteered at the Orange County Convention Center, and explored hotels and parks. She enjoyed the research so much that she went on to earn a Ph.D. in another inaugural program at UCF: education with a hospitality track.
And then she landed a job as an assistant professor — at the University of Alabama.
“I enjoyed it there, but something wasn’t quite right,” Hahm says. “I’d be teaching about hospitality and events, and every illustration I gave would be from the Orlando area.”
Hahm jumped at an opportunity to return to UCF in 2015, where she would soon work with faculty and the event management advisory board to wed experience with research in forming the much-needed graduate program.
“This has become like a lot of industries where an undergraduate degree is no longer enough for leadership positions,” Hahm says, “but right now employers can only ask for an MBA. We’re going to change that.”
Two years from now, the 30 students in this initial cohort will be the first to tell employers they have a master’s degree in event leadership.
“The idea that we’ll be learning from each other is a big part of why I want to do this,” Mullenax says. “It’s a reflection of how the event industry works today — it’s more collaborative than competitive. I specialize in decor, so I’m always working with people from other companies who specialize in areas like software or sound and lighting. Now we’ll be in the same cohort, going through the program together. I’m excited to get started.”