For 32-year-old Alba Jessica Montejano Salazar, completing her college degree seemed a distant dream, a marathon she started more than 10 years ago, before life’s circumstances sidelined her.
“I tried to keep going but my mother was dealing with health problems and I had two younger sisters that I had to help, taking them to school and helping them with homework,” Montejano Salazar said. She attended UNLV part-time from 2006 to 2012 before dropping out and taking on more hours at the Bellagio Hotel and Casino, where she works as a mini-bar attendant.
This fall, Montejano Salazar became one of the first 79 MGM Resorts International employees to take advantage of the new MGM College Opportunity Program at UNLV. The program, a partnership between the resort company and the Nevada System of Higher Education, provides MGM Resorts International’s 70,000 employees access to online certificate and college degree programs at no cost, except for an application fee.
Across NSHE, more than 250 MGM Resorts International employees have enrolled in the fall semester through this new college opportunity program.
“When I first heard about it, I thought, ‘This is perfect!’” Montejano Salazar said. “I can go back and finish what I started without worrying about expenses or cutting back my work hours. I was stoked and excited and relieved.”
Now, she is working on completing her bachelor’s degree in communication studies alongside her two sisters, a 17-year-old freshman and an 18-year-old sophomore, who each are attending UNLV full time.
Montejano Salazar’s experience is typical of many of the students taking advantage of the new program according to Cecilia Maldonado, UNLV’s associate vice provost for workforce development. The program aims to help resort employees who aspire to higher positions in the industry earn advanced degrees in the field, she said. Through the college opportunity program, students can pursue a master’s degree in hospitality administration, urban leadership, and emergency and crisis management.
“Corporations see the value in education and having educated employees who can move the company forward,” Maldonado said. “As a university, we’re seeing the value in growing our online programs and being much more purposeful in connecting what we teach in classrooms – especially online – with what employers need in the workforce.”
Preparing for Leadership Roles
Jamell Dickerson, a 34-year-old assistant restaurant manager at The Mirage, enrolled in the program in pursuit of a master’s degree in hospitality administration. He is taking two courses for six credits – hospitality revenue management and laws of innkeeping and food service.
“I’m going through this program to move up,” he said. “I want to be an executive vice president of food and beverage or hotel operations someday, and this program is a direct way of opening up that kind of opportunity.”
Danielle Donato, the senior learning concierge at NSHE, said the program’s launch comes at a time the economy is growing and companies need a more sophisticated workforce to respond to changes in the industry or to make changes that will help them grow in an increasingly competitive market.
“So far, the partnership with MGM has been outstanding,” she said. “The company and its employees see the world is evolving. Employees are looking to advance their skills, and the company wants its employees prepared for the new trends in technology, in the market and in the industry.”
But going from the work environment to an online learning environment can be challenging for students, especially if this is their first experience taking an online course.
To help students navigate the system, UNLV’s learning concierge Marcedes Butler serves as a liaison for students and the university.
“I plug students into any possible resource they may need to succeed,” she said. As the program launched, Butler worked closely with teams from enrollment, academic advising and NSHE to ensure students experienced a smooth transition into college.
“The benefit this online format provides students is flexibility,” Butler said. “But that’s also one of the challenges. It’s not always easy for students returning to college after many years to get into a rhythm. Another challenge is how different the online experience is in terms of the social piece, and having to learn a new way of interacting with professors and fellow students.”
To address students’ need for the collaboration and engagement central to the college experience, UNLV’s Division of Online Education designed an Online Student Center. The Online Student Center, available through WebCampus, serves as a virtual student union, where students can participate in a number of events, including career fairs, online study skills workshops, faculty discussion boards and more.
“The idea is to help students feel connected and feel like they are part of the campus community,” Butler said. “Just because they are not physically on campus, doesn’t mean they won’t have access to activities and discussions that other students have when they are physically here.”