City News

Hilton hospitality program guides veterans to success


Shawn Willey was a volunteer at a men’s homeless shelter when he met Frederick Smith and learned about the Diageo-funded program. | Ajani Stewart/The Cougar

He got his first taste of the restaurant business as a shift runner at Papa John’s, but now Shawn Willey finds himself a manager thanks to a few weeks well spent at the Hilton College.

The Learning Skills for Life program, housed in the Conrad N. Hilton College of Hotel and Restaurant Management, is garnering acclaim among Houston’s hospitality niche due to the success of its graduates. Willey completed the program in June.

Designed for unemployed and underemployed Houston veterans by the Hilton College and Diageo, an international alcoholic beverage company, the program has led to the hiring of dozens of individuals who had previously given up hope of employment.

“I knew that the program would be beneficial,” Willey said. “I didn’t know how beneficial, but it ended up being more than I anticipated.”

The program consists of a four-week curriculum that includes lectures on restaurant and hotel management, banquet service as well as culinary and housekeeping basics. The final week of the course places an emphasis on professional development.

Instructors from the Hilton College use step-by-step résumé building and mock interviews as tactics to prepare students for the workforce. Frederick Smith, the Learning Skills for Life program manager, believes the support that employers have given to veterans is the reason behind the course’s success.

“We have veterans that are going back to school,” Smith said. “We have veterans that have gone through the program homeless. We have veterans who now have a place to live, a job they enjoy doing, because employers are willing to give these people a chance.”

Narkida Hall, a July graduate, is now employed at The Escape Room and Pluckers Wing Bar. She had always envisioned for herself a career in hotel management.

When Hall learned of the program, she took it as an opportunity to network.

“I had always wanted to own businesses, have real estate investments and even create my own charity one day,” Hall said. “I knew the program would increase my chances of employment.”


After his success, Willey was asked to speak at one of the Learning Skills for Life graduation ceremonies to inspire other students. | Ajani Stewart/The Cougar

Smith said Willey is a classic example of a student who took advantage of the program and achieved success. Two days after Willey’s employment as a bartender at The Republic Smokehouse & Saloon, he was promoted to front-of-the-house service manager.

“I know what I’m capable of,” Willey said. “The door was open and I took advantage, but I had no doubts that going through that program and coming out of it was exactly what I needed.”

[email protected]

Leave a Comment