Degrees at Work: Bad Break Leads to Increased Skills

Working on a college degree can be backbreaking work. But for Kerry McCormick, that description carries a double meaning. And that’s because, in 2012, McCormick had the unfortunate experience of literally breaking her back. While convalescing from surgery in 2013, the Valley Stream, New York resident decided to put her recovery time to good use and enrolled in Excelsior College’s Bachelor of Science in Business program.

McCormick began her college studies at Queensborough Community College right after high school but discovered that she wasn’t ready to buckle down. More than 15 years later, she reconsidered a return to college and was exploring different programs. On Christmas day she was gifted with a ringing endorsement from her boyfriend’s son, a student in Excelsior’s nursing program. She explains, “He spoke so highly of the programs, of the teachers, the advisors, and how accessible it was [being an online institution] that I had to run with it.” When she checked the College’s website and saw her desired course of study, she enrolled the next day.

“When I was in kindergarten, and the teacher asked what everyone wanted to be when they grew up, I said I wanted to be a waitress,” McCormick explains. And at 18, she started working as a hostess in a restaurant. This self-described extrovert loves the hospitality industry, noting that no two days are the same. She says, “I like making people happy and making them smile. “ She feels that everyone should work in the hospitality industry at some point in their lives because it teaches communication and people skills.

McCormick currently serves as manager of the Bayside, Queen’s location of Uncle Jack’s Steakhouse. A mid-sized hospitality group, Uncle Jack’s has three New York area locations, a Georgia restaurant, and two additional steakhouses opening soon. She describes her job as “making sure guests have the steakhouse experience that they’re craving.”

Among her challenges are dealing with staff, customers, and vendors. Typically, hospitality workers are very transient, and retaining employees has been one of her biggest challenges. However, for the first time in her career, she’s been pleasantly surprised at the low turnover at Uncle Jack’s, an attribute she credits to the owner’s ease of accessibility and commitment to his brand and his employees.  “Your most valuable asset in your company is your human capital,” McCormick emphasizes. “It’s not only important to pay your people what they’re worth, but also to provide that feeling of ‘oneness with the company. It makes going to work every day more of a pleasure and less of a chore.”

Although many people can make a comfortable living in the hospitality industry without the benefit of a degree, McCormick notes the advantages of formal education. “You take notice of people with degrees. We’re an elite club,” she explains. “People who don’t know me, but who know I have an advanced degree, treat me with more respect and seek my opinion on things. That piece of paper [the college degree] that I worked for really does help! I’ve always been a relatively confident person but having the degrees has given me the confidence where I can truly go into any room and own it.”

Excelsior’s coursework helped bolster and expand McCormick’s already prodigious hospitality skills.  She cites BUS517 Employee Staffing and Development as being influential and relied on the textbook’s breakdown of salary levels and how to present them when working as an industry recruiter. She also enjoyed BUS364 Legal Environment of the Hospitality Industry and kept the textbook because she feels it will be a lifelong resource. Classes in human resources, she notes, gave her a solid foundation to help her navigate any situation. “The lesson plans and course material were all very relatable,” she notes.

McCormick completed her bachelor’s degree in 2016 and then enrolled in Excelsior’s Master of Business Administration program, which she completed in 2020. She’s now exploring a second master’s degree in hospitality management, hoping to strengthen her financial skills in particular. She says, “I’m sure I should and could learn it while doing it [on the job], but I would just love to have that classroom experience as well. There’s so much more to learn.”

MORE FROM KERRY McCORMICK

Crucial to her success at Excelsior

I knew it was going to be hard to start—me relearning how to learn again. But I had the support of my friends and family. I also used support services at the College such as Smarthinking, especially for every math class, and Grammarly for my papers. And my boyfriend Billy, a retired printer, helped proofread.

How to succeed in the hospitality industry

Everything you learned in kindergarten applies to the hospitality industry—be on time, clean up after yourself, and be courteous.

The Excelsior College experience

I cannot sing the praises of Excelsior College enough. I became close with Michele Paludi, senior faulty program director for human resources and leadership, and we did a lot of work with SHRM [Society for Human Resource Management] together—that was an amazing experience. This online institution that is a lot of miles away from Bayside, Queens, still afforded me an opportunity to belong to a group outside of school to connect with other people who were pursuing the same endeavors as me. It really made the experience a full college experience while letting me do it on my own time.

The best advice she’s received on the job—so far

Consistency and communication. If you’re putting a product out make sure it’s consistent. That’s how to build and maintain your base. If your product is constantly changing or your quality is constantly changing, you’re not going to retain your customers. Whatever product you’re putting out, make sure it’s the best, and make sure you’re proud of it!

Networking tips

Talk to everyone, get ideas from everyone, have a business card, get as much information as you can, and utilize LinkedIn for everything it’s worth.