English nearly failed 21-year-old Diana Chepkwony on May 11.
That was the day the Kenya native won the $1,500 Asheville Hospitality Excellence and Development scholarship -- the Chamber of Commerce's first-ever award for local tourist-industry students. It seemed she couldn't even manage to think in her native Swahili, but Chepkwony offered a breathless "thank you" --in English -- to the crowd assembled for a National Tourism Week luncheon held at the Grove Park Inn that day.
She clutched the plaque to her chest afterward, accepting hugs from her A-B Tech instructors -- one of whom, observing her excitement suggested, "You can breathe now."
Chepkwony smiled. In fact, she couldn't stop smiling. Earlier this spring, she had won a $600 scholarship from the Asheville Tourist Association, another from a national hospitality-industry group ... and she was named Outstanding Student of the Year in A-B Tech's hospitality program.
"Attitude, that's why she won," instructor Walter Rapetski commented, a few days later. "[Chepkwony's] the one staying after class, asking questions, helping other students."
"She's always there to go the extra mile. That's very gratifying, as an instructor. [Her dedication] drags us to a higher level," added fellow instructor Greg Schwartz.
We sat in A-B Tech's Mountain Tech Lodge -- a hotel-in-miniature, managed by students and catering to state employees and guests of the college. Chepkwony, award jitters sufficiently subsided, was in her element here: In the course of her studies, she has tackled every job in the lodge, from arranging the dining room to achieve a special ambiance ("That keeps you creative," noted Chepkwony) to cleaning the toilets in a guest room. "You have to be able to do it all," said the young woman, in impeccable -- if almost musically accented -- English.
"If your housekeeper doesn't show up, you have to cover it," she explained. "I don't think I could sit behind a desk all day. I'd like to manage my own hotel one day -- or work for an international hotel. I like being out and about, talking to visitors, helping the staff," Chepkwony continued. Then, exuding youthful ambition, she admitted to a grander dream: "I want to see the world [and] work for small hotels, medium-sized ones, large ones ... in Europe, Asia, everywhere."
Hospitality seems to come easily to Chepkwony. She related the pleasures of learning to cook and run a home in Nairobi -- where she often looked after her younger brothers and sisters -- and the joy of holding African-food potlucks with her cousins (who live in Asheville and also attend A-B Tech). Chepkwony remarked, with a laugh at the admittedly old-fashioned notion, "We Africans believe if you marry, you have to know how to cook and be hospitable; [otherwise] you will bring shame on your family." (There's no marriage in the making for Chepkwony, yet.)
Family tradition, in a way, is what brought Chepkwony to Asheville. "I came to visit my cousins, and I decided to stay," she explained, adding that she loves everything about Asheville except the decidedly un-African cold weather ... and the science classes. She was undecided about her course of study, at first, recounting that her main concern was, "I wasn't going to do anything with science, which my cousins are in!"
But the science of being nice to people certainly interested Chepkwony. Little did she realize, though, just how "technical" even that could get at A-B Tech. "In Kenya, I turned in handwritten papers," she revealed. "Here, I've had to learn Microsoft Publisher to create a brochure. I've had to tackle Excel for spreadsheets, and learn how to prepare a slide-show presentation on computer. Everything is changing; everything is electronic."
Technology, in fact, was the topic of the May 11 awards luncheon, and the significance of that didn't escape Chepkwony. "The Internet business is really booming. Asheville is growing, and it should keep up with what's happening," she said, referring to the Chamber's announced goal of persuading at least 50 percent of local hotels to offer on-line reservations.
Rapetski pointed to the changes in the tourist industry, such as the advent of such new technologies as computerized door locks worked with credit-card-like "keys," on-line reservations, and interactive data bases that allow customer-service employees at a hotel to know that Mr. John Doe, a regular customer, "likes his porterhouse rare, his wine pinot noir ... and staff can have it waiting for him when he arrives."
Such technological advances have also changed the way subjects are taught at A-B Tech -- and the way students like Chepkwony must apply themselves, in order to achieve their career goals -- both Rapetski and Schwartz agreed.
Said Schwartz: "When I first started teaching here, I would require one Internet reference [for papers and research]. Now, the Internet is such a primary resource for my students, I have to require at least one written source, from newspapers, magazines and books. The students get on the computers and go. They teach us how to use them. We don't pass out a course syllabus anymore. We say, 'Here's the disk.'" A-B Tech, he continued, is moving toward giving nstructors their own Web sites, where students can directly download assignments and get information about courses. "[Our] students are going to be able to go out and meet whatever technology is coming," Schwartz declared.
High-tech skills aside, though, students would still do well to cultivate the positive attitude Chepkwony possesses, despite being so far from home.
She mentioned that one of the things she misses most about Kenya is speaking her native language, then jokes (while attempting a little drawl), "I'm trying to get into speaking Southern."
"You told me, once, you were going to turn in a report in Swahili," Rapetski teased. "And you said you'd give me a Swahili grade, too!" Chepkwony tossed back.
Then, getting back to business, she noted how impressed she'd been by the Chamber's announced plans to produce a new series of television ads promoting Asheville as a tourist destination. "That's a great idea, because [outside of the South], you never hear about Asheville," Chepkwony pointed out. Her first stint in the United States was in California, where she briefly attended college on a scholarship. "I didn't even know where [Asheville] was," she confessed.
"The local economy is growing because of tourism," Chepkwony continued, noting that nearly 20,000 workers in the Asheville area are employed in some aspect or other of the industry. Many of her fellow students work in local restaurants and hotels, she mentioned. "Tourism is an industry, and it may surpass manufacturing here," she observed.
To that, Rapetski commented that there's often a misconception that tourist-industry jobs offer low pay: "Entry-level jobs in tourism may not pay as well as [entry-level] jobs in traditional manufacturing. But once you get past that entry level -- with training and education -- the pay in the tourist industry can be very rewarding," he offered.
That's where Chepkwony has pinned her hopes: After A-B Tech, she plans to work her way through school and earn a bachelor's degree in hospitality management. And who knows? One day, you just might walk into a luxurious Paris hotel, and have Chepkwony greet you with, "Welcome to my place."