Allen Saunders wrote in Reader’s Digest, 1957: “Life is what happens to us while we are making other plans.” So it was with Richard Oknick, a hospitality professional of over 20 years, who had never fully let go of his goal of wrapping up his undergraduate degree.
“My wife and I would talk about the possibility of me going back to school,” Rick says, “however, we were both busy with demanding careers and a young family, and we just couldn't imagine finding the time needed to make that commitment.” It’s a familiar story, to be sure.
Rick’s role, as he describes it, was in “helping restaurant owners and operators overcome challenges and run profitable operations.” He was the guide in troubled waters, finding the path and leading his clients to safety and success.
Enter: The Pandemic
To mitigate the spread of the coronavirus, Governor Tim Walz announced shutdowns and lockdowns for businesses where people showed up in crowds: gyms, movie theaters, schools… and restaurants.
“I knew immediately due to the public health nature of the COVID-19 crisis that my industry was in trouble,” Rick says. “Straight away I focused my time and energy working with my clients to strategize and build a roadmap that didn’t yet exist to take on the numerous challenges that come with operating during a pandemic.” The new restrictions meant Rick’s industry was in jeopardy and his future was completely unknown.
Yet Rick had two valuable assets: the ability to think on his feet, and a spouse ready and willing to support a new opportunity. “A few weeks into the lockdown, my wife encouraged me to look into enrolling in school. We figured that I finally had the time that I had never had before to dedicate myself to earning my degree. That’s when I found the Multidisciplinary Studies bachelor's degree program.”
His new degree will wrap up a long-standing loose end and strengthen him to move forward, anywhere. “My aim is to use my bachelor of science from the University of Minnesota to open doors to new opportunities and to gain new experiences and insights. Perhaps I’ll apply my skills to a new profession, or I’ll take on a role that will empower me to further support our vibrant Twin Cities restaurant community in its rebuilding process.”
"A few weeks into the lockdown, my wife encouraged me to look into enrolling in school. We figured that I finally had the time that I had never had before to dedicate myself to earning my degree."
A Method of Listening
On returning to school, Rick was paired with volunteer mentor Mary Kay Delvo, herself an alumna with a Master of Liberal Studies from the University in 2015. As of 2020–21, CCAPS’s mentor program is in its second year of operation, largely pulling from U graduates to support new students. “Through our work together,” he says, “Mary Kay empowered me to discover my authentic self and to realize that my talents and skills can be put to work in so many ways.”
Mary Kay’s career has centered on coaching individuals and organizations to prepare for a range of futures. “There are so many unique work and career opportunities available, and the majority of students have no idea what they are, or what questions to ask to uncover them,” she says.
“Half the jobs of the future have not yet been designed or created, yet we expect students coming out of high school and undergraduate school to 'know' what they want to do or be and to commit their time and finances to these careers.”
She doesn't try to force the students she counsels into a rigid template. Instead, she uses a simple information-gathering technique: “When I mentor students, I try to create conversations that will draw their skills out and help them align their choices with their top values… In my work with Rick, not only did that clarity ignite excitement, but it motivated him to take action and reach out to professionals across many disciplines. With each conversation Rick had, he gained a little more clarity and focus, which is launching him forward.”
"As Busy as Ever"
With the pandemic’s disruption to everyone's plans, Mary Kay was “as busy as ever. It caused individuals and organizations to reflect and take inventory. What they learned is they needed help gaining clarity and creating a strategy to ensure they are ready for whatever comes their way.” In this sense, her work paralleled what Rick was attempting to provide for his own clients.
Through his mentor and the Multidisciplinary Studies program, Rick is prepared to embark on his new plan. “My vision of the future is constantly evolving, and that’s exciting to me. I’m not sure exactly what it holds for me after graduation this fall,” he says. “I do know that I feel gratification about the path that I’ve been on so far, and optimistic about wherever it is leading me next.”
Richard Oknick is the recipient of the J.W. Buchta Memorial Scholarship.