At first, Shekinah Hoffman was hesitant to plan and teach a program for high school students. She had never before worked with youths. But now, she considers it a privilege to work with her students.
Hoffman has served as a project coordinator for the Young Executive Scholars Hospitality and Tourism Program (YES), based at UNLV’s International Gaming Institute (IGI), for the last three years. Though it’s a summer program, she is invested in her students’ lives year-round through mentorship, help with college planning, and fall STEM programs.
“I am always available to my YES students, past and present, for whatever they need,” Hoffman said. “I was fortunate to have a mentor who saw something in me when I was not much older than these students — someone who has helped me create a better life for myself. Through YES, I pay that mentorship forward.”
Hoffman’s work with YES program has earned her UNLV’s 2019 Faculty/Staff Community Outreach Award. She received the award at the university’s Academic Achievement Award ceremony in April.
Modeled after IGI and UNR's renowned Executive Development Program (EDP) for industry professionals, YES is a rigorous four-week, five-day-per-week summer program of applied learning, team collaboration, and a mentor-guided case-study analysis of the global hospitality-tourism industry. The program serves the community's most disadvantaged, diverse high school students: sophomores, juniors, and seniors, ages 15-18, who attend Title I Clark County School District (CCSD) schools.
The program partners with the Las Vegas nonprofit CORE, powered by The Rogers Foundation, which employs an in- and out-of-school model that focuses on the development and empowerment of Southern Nevada’s under-resourced youth. IGI provides the educational content (professors, industry lecturers, behind-the-scenes field trips to the Strip’s resorts, campus setting, etc.), and CORE provides logistical support, such as transportation and staff.
In addition to learning about the hospitality industry, YES students learn about the UNLV experience, meet UNLV professors, interact with UNLV students, and learn about the campus.
“YES has changed the way these students view their hometown university and our hospitality program. Many of the students are considering majoring in hospitality now, too,” she said, adding that the first two years produced 40 graduates of the YES program, and 100 percent of them are headed to college this fall. Fifteen are headed to UNLV.
Hoffman said that YES has gained considerable industry participation, including support from such major gaming-hospitality companies as Caesars Entertainment, Wynn Resorts, Las Vegas Sands, MGM Resorts International, Aristocrat Technologies, Wolfgang Puck Fine Dining Group, and many others. William Hill provides college scholarships to the students annually — which count toward any college or major of the student’s choosing — and AGS provides laptops for the students to work on their projects, since many students don’t have access to this technology at home.
CORE founder and executive director Lindsay Harper wrote in support of Hoffman’s award nomination.
“Over the past two years, I have witnessed Shekinah empower students that did not believe in their abilities,” Harper said. “Shekinah is not just preparing students to be the next leaders in the community; she, through YES, is providing the skills needed for students to be creative critical thinkers, innovative problem solvers, collaborators, and dynamic communicators.”
Hoffman had never worked with high school students before she founded the YES program. Now, she says, “YES is my greatest accomplishment to date. It has changed my life, and it’s hopefully changed the lives of our students. YES faculty, myself, UNLV, CCSD, and CORE staff truly believe together we can bridge the gap between UNLV, the community, and the industry to create an even brighter future for this city. We hope to show Las Vegas’ under-resourced youth a world out there bigger than what they know and introduce them to people in their community who want to help them succeed,” Hoffman said.
YES, which was created in 2017, is expanding this summer through a partnership with Clark County School District’s career & technical education department (CCSD CTE) and CORE, powered by The Rogers Foundation. By working with CCSD CTE and CORE, YES will reach a new cohort of 25 students from several Title I high schools including: East Career & Technical Academy, Canyon Springs High School, Mission High School (CCSD’s first charter school to serve students in substance abuse recovery), and more students involved in CORE.
“Our hope is that through exposure and access to a diverse pool of successful Las Vegas executives and leaders, we will create a strong pipeline of homegrown talent who will become the next generation of Nevada hospitality industry trailblazers,” Hoffman said.
The UNLV office of community engagement established four universitywide awards in 2016 to recognize campus individuals for their exceptional community engagement in the areas of service learning, community-based research, faculty/staff community outreach activity, and student service.