At PBSC, friendship fuels journey to bachelor’s degrees and hospitality careers

Arianna Villano, Marino Tirado and Lesuia “Leah” Amaya at PBSC’s spring graduation at Cacti Park in West Palm Beach on May 7.

Marino Tirado had been working in the hospitality industry in New York City for 20 years when he came down to Florida for a temporary assignment just as the pandemic hit. He decided to stay and go back to school.

Lesuia Amaya, who goes by “Leah,” was an assistant manager at a diner when on a busy Mother’s Day, her ability to deal with a tough situation so impressed a customer that the customer told her she should go to school for hospitality. Leah had no idea there was such an option.

Arianna Villano knew from the time that she was in high school that hospitality was her calling. She was considering other schools until her memories of a high school field trip reminded her of a better choice.

Diplomas in hand

Marino, Leah and Arianna not only found Palm Beach State College’s Hospitality and Tourism Management Associate in Science degree program, but they also found each other, and through their friendship, after receiving their A.S. degrees, they went on to earn bachelor’s degrees at PBSC. All three graduate this spring from the Bachelor of Applied Science degree program in Supervision and Management, with a concentration in General Management.

“I don’t think I could have made it all the way without Leah and Arianna,” Marino said.

“Anytime I was feeling down and ready to give up, they were both there to say ‘No, you can’t. You’re not allowed to,’” Leah said. “I really, truly did need them to move forward.”

Arianna agreed. “We were always lifting each other up, and I honestly would not have gotten here without them.”

They’ve earned their degrees just as Florida’s hospitality and tourism industry makes a stronger-than-ever comeback, with employment surpassing its pre-pandemic peak by 422,000 jobs, growing to 2 million jobs, according to a recent study commissioned by Visit Florida. Palm Beach State’s combination of a two-year A.S. degree, followed by a two-year B.A.S. degree worked well for these students, preparing each for management track positions in the hospitality industry.

The three initially met in the online classes necessitated by the pandemic, but their real connection formed in the Professional Cooking course held in the commercial kitchen lab on the Lake Worth campus.

A bond formed, even though they come from very different backgrounds.

Marino Tirado volunteered to be in a PBSC digital ad in 2021 when he was in the Hospitality and Tourism Management A.S. degree program. The ad campaign promoted the two short-term college credit certificate programs—Hospitality and Food Service Management—that are embedded in the A.S. degree.

Marino Tirado
Born and raised in New York, Marino had never lived anywhere else before he found himself in Wellington, helping his employer open a new restaurant, Móle Cantina Mexicana.

“I came with my suitcase. My boss told me it was going to be maybe three weeks tops, but then COVID happened, and I was forced to make a decision. Do I go back to New York, where I may not be able to make any money, or do I stay here in Florida, where I already have a job and make a new life?”

Since high school, Marino, 40, had worked in several different fields but always fell back on hospitality, mostly serving tables and bartending. His early experiences in community colleges were frustrating—“I remember sitting in earth science class and thinking ‘How is this gonna help me pay my bills?’”—but now he thought, “It’s time to go back to school so I can prepare for my future.” Because despite all his experience in hospitality, he knew he lacked the one thing needed to advance: a bachelor’s degree.

“Moving here to Florida really gave me a whole fresh start on life, and Palm Beach State College was a big part of that,” Marino said. While he got promoted to beverage manager at Móle before he finished his bachelor’s degree, he says “it has certainly helped me to thrive in my position.”

Marino used to describe himself as “a little bit of the black sheep” of his family because he was the only one who wasn’t a college graduate.  “In the house, they all have their college graduation photos on the wall, and now there’ll be mine.” A member of the Phi Theta Kappa honor society when pursuing his associate degree, Marino is currently a member of Delta Mu Delta, the international business honor society, through his good standing in the bachelor’s program.

Arianna Villano (left/back) and Leah Amaya in the commercial kitchen lab on the Lake Worth campus during their A.S. degree days.

Lesuia Amaya
Leah grew up in Greenacres and graduated from John I. Leonard High School in 2012. She didn’t know what she wanted to do at 18, but once she knew what she wanted and inspired by the happy diner customer, this mother of two boys gave herself a push and enrolled in PBSC’s hospitality program. That step then landed her a job before she graduated.

With the diner closing due to COVID-19, Leah started applying for jobs. Sodexo, the worldwide food services company, had a supervisor opening that required an associate degree, but since she was pursuing the A.S. degree, they hired her and gave her a flexible work schedule so she could finish.

Leah continues to work for Sodexo client Jupiter Medical Center as a supervisor in the Food and Nutrition Department, which oversees patient food as well as retail foods for medical staff and visitors. Now that she has her bachelor’s degree, however, she hopes to advance her career to a manager role.

“My main goal was for my children to see that no matter how old you are, you can always go back to school and finish and do what you want to do,” said Leah, who is 30. “It has been probably one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I was really only going to get my A.S. degree, and when I got it, Marino and Arianna said, ‘Let’s keep going.’ So, I went along with it and here we are!”

Arianna Villano
A people-person, Arianna, 23, has been drawn to the hospitality industry ever since she enrolled in the Hospitality and Tourism Academy at Olympic Heights High School in Boca Raton. It was on an academy field trip to PBSC that she took part in a luncheon prepared by hospitality students in the commercial kitchen lab. The memory of that day motivated her to pursue her passion at PBSC.

“Serving other people just makes me really happy as well as ensuring the comfort that people should expect when they enter your hotel,” she said.

Arianna is already serving others as a concierge in the Disney College Program in Orlando, a unique paid internship that involves work, study and networking with Disney leaders. She finished the spring term at PBSC remotely while working at the resort and participating in the highly competitive program, which only accepts about 20% of applicants. Arianna has since applied for and received an extension to stay in the Disney College Program until January 2025 and hopes to transition to a permanent role.

Graduates and Professors (from left): Laird Livingston, professor and chair of PBSC’s Hospitality Department; Arianna Villano; Marino Tirado; Leah Amaya; and Heidi Ladika-Cipolla, hospitality associate professor.

Regarding the value of her Palm Beach State education, Arianna echoes what her classmates think, too. “The most rewarding part is seeing every aspect of what I’ve learned at PBSC come to life in the real world.”

All three praised their “amazing” professors like hospitality department chair Laird Livingston (“Chef Laird” to his students) and Heidi Ladika-Cipolla, who encouraged them to put their A.S. credits toward the bachelor’s degree, as well as bachelor’s degree professors like Brooke Coslett, DBA, who guided them in their joint bachelor’s capstone project, George Charles, DBA, and Daniel Creed, Ph.D.

“I am very proud of Leah, Arianna and Marino. They showed that determined students who work together, no matter their backgrounds, can be successful in achieving their academic goals,” said Livingston, who has 35 years of experience in the hospitality industry, both as a restaurateur and an educator. “We as educators need to be flexible in how we deliver curriculum and work with students’ schedules and busy lives. There no longer exists the traditional college student. Working parents, young adults and industry-experienced professionals are the new norm, and we embrace them at Palm Beach State.”

For these three students, their friendship hasn’t always been about school. They also enjoyed times hanging out together, and now, as they go their separate ways, they plan to stay in touch.

“Yeah, we’ve already spoken about that,” Leah said. “We can’t just disappear on each other, and we won’t.”


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