Connecting the Dots

By Minju Kang

Before I even knew what the word “hospitality” meant, I was infatuated with it.

I grew up in my grandmother’s Korean BBQ restaurant in Busan, South Korea, where I spent my toddler days doling out spoons and chopsticks to her loyal customers.

Her restaurant was rightfully named “Woo-Rae-Jeong,” which translates to “the place you come back to.” It was known for her food, but most famous for her cordial attitude and (grand)motherly affection for others. She would call out across the restaurant to her patrons as she took orders—“Did you call your mom this week? How’s your cold?”—and receive smiles and laughing replies each time. I loved being at the restaurant. It was always happy and loud and it helped that everyone there thought I was just the cutest little waitress there ever was!

When I wasn’t at the restaurant, I was flying all over East Asia with my grandfather, a nationally-renowned journalist. He took me to Fukuoka, Japan, where I discovered my hatred for sashimi; to Sumatra, Indonesia, where I got to pet a baby elephant; and to Seoul, where I met the vice president of my home country. Despite mishaps like the sushi incident of ‘03 (never to be spoken of again), I loved traveling, and I especially loved all of the hotels I got to stay in along the way.

The humongous plush beds and pillows, along with access to my favorite TV channels and room-service desserts, were what had me begging my grandfather to take me with him on his business trips each time he pulled out his suitcase. Even when I was home in Busan, I took walks with my grandparents around my city and dragged them into the lobbies of the beachside resorts lining the boardwalk.

My memories of the cozy family restaurant and my childhood travels stay with me to this day, years after my grandparents’ retirements and my move across the world to America. It was these sentiments of warmth, comfort and happiness that drove me to the hotel sector of the hospitality industry. In second grade, I proudly announced to my grandparents over the phone that I would be owning my very own hotel one day, and that I had already mentally reserved the penthouse suite for them.

In order to pursue my interest and take industry-related classes to further my knowledge, I applied to the Academy of Culinary Arts and Hospitality Administration at the Bergen County Academies, and I was lucky enough to be accepted into the program. Throughout high school, I balanced my regular coursework with additional classes in culinary arts and hotel operations. My instructors encouraged me to find internship and job opportunities within the industry, and I was able to gain experience that I never thought was possible in high school. I worked many waitress jobs at numerous cafes in Bergen County, and during my senior year, I was even able to intern within the Food and Beverage department at a luxury hotel in Manhattan called the Loews Regency New York Hotel.

All of these opportunities allowed me to spread and feel the warmth and joy I had felt at my grandmother’s restaurant and in my grandfather’s travels. They also helped me narrow down my interests so I could clearly follow my passion.

I discovered that I’m a pretty good event planner. Not only am I good at organization and working under pressure, but I enjoy it! I began to take charge in planning my family and friends’ outings, and participated in leadership roles in clubs at school to get involved with planning and executing fundraising events. I also found that I had a knack for social psychology: After reading a couple of Malcolm Gladwell books, I became extremely interested in marketing and the principles of communication. I took on the role of social media intern at Loews, where I helped manage the hotel’s social media accounts and used its platforms to highlight hotel promotions and amenities.

Another growing interest that I was investing more and more time into was fashion and beauty. Much of my creative inspiration came from the pages of Conde Nast publications and Fashion Week photoshoots, while much of my hard-earned income went into my closet and Sephora tab. Flipping through fashion magazines and reading beauty blogs became one of my favorite pastimes.

As I entered my first semester at Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration, I found a way to combine my personally developed interests and hobbies with my earliest passion. While taking classes and learning more about the industry, I deduced that simple hotel operations was not the way I wanted to go; I wanted to really love my work and create a career that would combine all of my passions. Although I had never really acted on my interest in fashion, I joined a fashion club on campus and joined the Special Events committee within the club to plan the organization’s annual gala.

Through a few months of experimenting and joining clubs and activities that I simply had an interest in, I was able to decide upon a career goal—to work in Marketing and Public Relations in the fashion and beauty industry. Working in this industry, I’ll be able to surround myself with the creative sphere that I love and thrive in, while being able to work and plan major events such as launch parties, influencer receptions, and other events.

This isn’t the career path that I thought I’d be pursuing; I had thought for almost a decade of my life that I would be doing something different. I was lucky that I never had to feel scared about what I wanted to do, since I always had some sort of idea. However, throughout my life, that idea has changed, and yet I never felt anxiety or discomfort, because my vision was morphing into something that was exciting rather than intimidating.

I guess it’s unfair to force 17-year-olds to decide exactly what they want to do with the rest of their lives. Although the university you attend and the major you study do not necessarily cement your career path, the decision is still a big one—one that many of my friends struggled with during their senior year of high school.

Deciding what you want to do shouldn’t be a scary process. It should be one that makes you excited for the future because you are pursuing a dream that you are passionate about. Changes and adjustments to this idea should be welcomed. And most importantly, you don’t always have to know exactly what it is, or exactly how you’re going to get there—especially not at 17 years old. If you enjoy what you’re doing, things will work themselves out in due time.

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