By Lynne Winter
Josephina Carlacci-King discovered her passion for hospitality while studying abroad. But it wasn’t until she survived a serious accident that she was able to truly focus her life on serving others.
Now, the 24-year-old is wrapping her “rollercoaster” college experience as one of two spring recipients of a Rita and Navin Dimond Fellowship.
In 2014, Stonebridge Cos. founders Rita and Navin Dimond made a generous gift to establish the Rita and Navin Dimond Fellows Program at Metropolitan State University of Denver. The fellowship accepts School of Hospitality students twice a year, giving recipients paid, hands-on experience at select Stonebridge Cos. properties in the Denver area to prepare them for becoming the hospitality-industry leaders of tomorrow.
During a normal year, a fellowship at the Home2 Tru by Hilton Denver Downtown Convention Center would involve learning the basics in each of the hotel’s departments. However, because of pandemic-related layoffs, Carlacci-King said she learned from a general manager and an assistant general manager who were working every job required to keep the hotel running.
Her work so impressed Assistant General Manager Kara van Beek that she offered Carlacci-King a full-time job after she graduates this month with a degree in Hospitality, Tourism and Events with a concentration in Event and Meeting Management.
“While I haven’t learned what I anticipated going into the fellowship, the experience has been invaluable,” Carlacci-King said. “I’ve learned how to pivot a company during challenging times and how customer service and hotel operations change.”
But Carlacci-King came into the fellowship knowing quite a bit about pivots, change and challenging times.
She started her college career at Otero Junior College, where she played volleyball. In 2016, she walked away from the life of a collegiate athlete – “It wasn’t for me,” she said – and took some time off from college to study in Italy with Richmond University. While there, she also worked with refugee women and fed the homeless.
“I was in a country where I wasn’t fluent in the language, which pushed me the extra mile to create interpersonal relationships,” she said. “The experience solidified my desire to seek out a career in hospitality that would have longevity.”
That search led her to MSU Denver’s School of Hospitality, where she enrolled in spring 2016.
“I loved that MSU Denver offered a Hospitality program, and I was excited to find a degree program that would set me up for a career I could be passionate about,” Carlacci-King said.
Carlacci-King credits her MSU Denver professors with giving her the real-world experience and advice she needed to succeed in a hospitality career.
“Professors like Andrea Peterson and Scotti Gladney expect great things, and it pushes us to deliver and meet those expectations,” she said. “The knowledge they gave me in one semester – things you don’t learn unless you have experience in the field – will carry me through my career.”
Carlacci-King maintained a 3.5 GPA at MSU Denver while working two jobs – one as a server and another at the Jacquard Hotel in Cherry Creek.
“It was crazy. I worked bottle service at a club until 2 a.m., changed my clothes and headed over to start my 4 a.m. shift at the hotel,” she said. “I followed up work with a trip to campus for my classes.”
Then, on Jan. 5, 2020, Carlacci-King was injured in a serious accident, and her carefully crafted college life collapsed. She lost her job and apartment and moved back in with her parents. While she recovered from injuries that kept her from walking around campus, she had to take a break from classes during the spring 2020 semester. But for all the challenges that the accident and her recovery presented, she said the accident helped her refocus her life.
“I was working day and night, and while the money was nice, it wasn’t worth sacrificing my health,” she said. “I wanted to finish my degree, have a stable job and give back to others.”
Carlacci-King reenrolled in classes as soon as she was able to and focused on completing her senior year. Committed solely to her academics, she earned a 4.0 GPA for the first time and earned her spot in the Rita and Navin Dimond Fellows Program.
Working with Home2 Tru Assistant GM van Beek was a transformative experience, Carlacci-King said.
“I’m passionate about finding a mentor to teach me the ropes, and I believe I found that (in van Beek),” she said. “Her guidance will teach me what I need to know about the industry and help me carve out a career path.”
She is looking forward to forging her hospitality path, working full-time at Home2 Tru and providing exceptional experiences for the guests she serves.
“Working in hospitality breaks down barriers, allows me to give back to others and takes me out of that headspace where I ask myself, ‘What is my purpose in this world?’” she said. “It gives me a sense of satisfaction.”
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