Last year, seven recent high school graduates answered a mysterious invitation to The Mansion at MGM Grand. The young guests had little idea what was in store for them when they arrived.
They knew the stakes were high, as they were all in the running for an Epicurean Charitable Foundation scholarship. The annual grant is awarded to promising hospitality and culinary arts students based on financial need, academic standing, and the quality of a personal essay.
Despite the fancy setup, the seven young women were under the impression that they had been called in for a final interview.
“I got scared,” says soft-spoken California native Sol Gonzalez Pacheco, who entered The Mansion’s conference room to a bigger-than-usual audience. “I was worried they wouldn’t be able to hear me during the interview and think that I wasn’t confident.”
When the news dropped that in fact all seven had been granted full-ride scholarships to attend the UNLV Harrah College of Hospitality, tension immediately turned to joy. A local television station was there to capture the surprise.
“When the news reporter came out, I knew something was happening,” recounts scholarship recipient Ashley Kozell, “but I was still so confused.”
Fellow winner, Cameron Keenan, reacted similarly: “I was honestly in disbelief. It was surreal to think … finally, all that hard work paid off.”
The awards were particularly significant for several of the scholarship winners who have overcome obstacles beyond the scope of normal childhood. After the death of her father, Pacheco took on the role of breadwinner (with her older sister), spending hours each day on the bus to and from work. Philippines native Bettina Bautista and Ethiopian-born Brkiti Brhan faced an array of social and cultural challenges after their families immigrated to the United States.
Meanwhile, parental substance abuse forced then-high school student Paige Owens into the role of parent. “I felt responsible for my three younger brothers,” recalls Owens, whose aunt and grandmother have since moved in to share the workload. “It was so hard to have enough patience. I was forced to grow up quick.”
Since the foundation scholarship program’s inception in 2003, the College of Hospitality has graduated dozens of scholarship winners, many of whom have gone on to occupy high-level management positions in the hospitality industry. For most of the beneficiaries, the scholarship means the difference between a high school diploma and a university degree.
“Without it, I would never have gone to college,” says Martha Morales ’09, past ECF scholarship winner and current general manager of Nobu Hotel at Caesars Palace.
A teen mother whose family pushed work over education, Morales understands all too well the barriers that can get in the way of a young person’s college dream. That’s one reason why she pays it forward by serving on the foundation’s board: “It’s amazing to be able to award the scholarship that helped make me successful.”
On top of covering tuition, books, and all fees, the scholarship offers students vital career mentoring and job-placement support—backed by the foundation’s volunteer network of more than 20 top hospitality industry executives. But for this year’s winners, the gifts didn’t end there. Following the announcement, the young women came out to The Mansion driveway to find seven brand-new cars waiting for them, courtesy of Don Forman at United Nissan in Las Vegas.
“I felt like I was on the Price Is Right,” recalls Bautista, “and Drew Carey goes, ‘You won a brand-new car!’ I didn’t think I would be able to ever experience that in my life.”
Those present, including family members, MGM staff, the Forman family, and foundation representatives, knew the moment was significant on many levels. “This was not about giving these young women cars,” said executive director Melissa Arias. “It was about giving them access to life—to doctor’s appointments, to practices, to meetings with their advisers. It opens the world to them.”
It is indeed a completely new world for these seven individuals, one filled with opportunity but also great responsibility—just ask Brhan, who vows to “work even harder” to change her and her family’s lives.
“Pure excitement” is how fellow winner Meagan Taylor sums up her feelings: “All of that time I spent imagining my future? I think it’s here.”
Faces of the Future
These seven ECF scholarship awardees have hit the ground running since arriving at UNLV. Here’s a glimpse into what makes them tick.
Bettina BautistaHometown: Manilla, PhilippinesHospitality Interest: Restaurant managementDream Job: Pastry chefSecret Super Power: Makes the best macaron cookies ever!
Brkiti BrhanHometown: Mekelle City, EthiopiaHospitality Interest: Hotel managementDream Job: To run my own hotelSecrete Super Power: Can binge-watch an entire season of a show in a day
Cameron KeenanHometown: Las VegasHospitality Interest: Events managementDream Job: Top event plannerSecret Super Power: Can predict results of The Bachelor
Ashley KozellHometown: Las VegasHospitality Interest: Hotel managementDream Job: Marketing director for a major Strip propertySecret Super Power: Ability to make “time fly” thanks to twice-a-day napping schedule
Paige OwensHometown: Las VegasHospitality Interest: UndecidedDream Job: To be the voice and face of Las VegasSecret Super Power: Extraordinary ability to see far distances
Sol Gonzalez PachecoHometown: Santa Maria, CaliforniaHospitality Interest: Events management or food & beverageDream Job: To possibly own a businessSecret Super Power: Great athlete (volleyball, track, etc.)
Meagan TaylorHometown: Las VegasHospitality Interest: Events and entertainmentDream Job: To oversee a premier event venue, such as T-Mobile arenaSecret Super Power: Student of Shotokan karate