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Executive director at BWI Airport brings perspective, possibility to Hospitality Management students

Students gain from real-world perspectives and connections of guest speakers.

Ricky Smith didn’t achieve success on his own.

Smith is the executive director of the Maryland Aviation Administration, which operates BWI Airport, and he worked hard to get that job as the head of the company. But there were people in his youth and throughout his career who inspired, pushed, and guided him. Without them, he says, he wouldn’t be where he is now.

Today, Smith is one of many industry professionals giving back and inspiring students to achieve their goals at York College of Pennsylvania.

Professionals in the classroom

Bringing industry professionals to campus to interact with students is integral to the Hospitality Management program, says York College Professor Shelly La Motte.

Guest speakers give students a real-world perspective on what they’re studying and help make career aspirations feel achievable.

It’s helpful to hear from someone who has been there and done that, she says.

Smith was one of those guest speakers, providing an insider’s view to the airport hospitality industry.

Working at an airport isn’t just for pilots and maintenance workers, he says. An airport is like a small city with an incredible amount of career opportunities. As an executive director, he oversees a lot of that city.

“It requires innovation, creativity, and problem solving,” Smith says.

Offering inspiration

During his visit, he was impressed with the students who had gathered to hear him speak. They were engaged, took notes, and asked smart questions.

“It’s clear they were there because they wanted to be,” Smith says, “not just to check a box.”

Smith says he’s just a regular guy. He worked hard, and eventually that paid off. He didn’t grow up in a great neighborhood, he didn’t live a charmed life, yet he still achieved success.

He hopes that if students can see that, they’ll realize that with hard work they can accomplish their goals too.

Professor La Motte agrees.

“They see that this isn’t superman. It’s someone just like them who climbed the ladder and put in a lot of hard work,” she says. “It’s inspiring to our students to see what they can achieve.”

Dedication from students

Professor La Motte knows the students appreciate the guest speakers because they make sacrifices to attend.

Many of her students are the first in their family to go to college or are paying their own tuition, she says. They have jobs and commitments, yet they find time for these lectures.

“For them to take this time says a lot for their dedication,” Professor La Motte says.

Students are required to wear business attire for guest speakers, and she jokes about the eye-rolls she gets when another speaker is announced and another chance to wear jeans is taken away.

But, she often hears how impressed speakers are with the students’ professionalism. It’s one more way she’s preparing them for the real world of hospitality.

Networking opportunities

Several students came up to talk with Smith one-on-one after his lecture. It’s another one of the perks of bringing in working professionals — personalized advice and the opportunity to network.

One student expressed her interest in doing an internship with Southwest Airlines but hadn’t had any luck getting into their program. Smith offered to connect her with a contact at Southwest he knew through BWI Marshall Airport.

It’s those small interactions that can change the course of a person’s life, Smith says, even if you don’t realize it at the time.

Professor La Motte has seen these guest speaker interactions turn into internships, mentorships, and even job offers for her students.

Preparing for a growing industry

York College’s Hospitality Management program started six years ago, and in that time has become known as a reliable source of qualified graduates.

Hospitality and tourism is the fastest growing industry in the world, Professor La Motte says. She makes sure students, and especially their parents, know that. You will get your investment back, she tells them.

She sometimes hears misconceptions about the program. We’re not a culinary program, she says, and we’re not teaching people to be cooks or chefs.

Students in the Hospitality Management program take finance, accounting, law, economics and marketing classes to earn their bachelor’s degree.

It’s like a business degree, Professor La Motte says, but one that specializes in hospitality.

The job opportunities and salaries in this field are great, she says, and the industry just keeps growing.