Find Your Passion: UA Senior Exchanges Opera for Hotel
By Kim Eaton
Change is never an easy thing, but Ashley Lewis has learned over the years that when you take a chance on something new, you might just find your life’s calling.
The University of Alabama senior has grand plans for her future in the hospitality industry, but that was not always the case. Her initial love was music, and her dream was to sing. She started singing in her church at the young age of 5. Her journey through music continued in high school and her first year of college at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, where she studied opera.
“Music was always a way to escape from everything that was going wrong in my life,” says Lewis, a Florence native. “Performing allows you to have a connection with each individual person in the audience, particularly with opera.
“In opera you’re singing in a lot of different languages, and you have to study the music and really understand what the character is saying. You become that person, and you share that with the audience,” she says. “It’s the most amazing experience, and I just loved having that connection with people and being able to express myself and free my mind.”
Despite her love for music, Lewis quickly realized that she needed to find a career that would provide more financial stability. She left UAB, started waitressing during the day and taking night classes. Shortly after, a former manager helped her apply for a position at the Holiday Inn at the Birmingham Airport. It was a sales position, and her duties mainly involved answering phones and assisting where needed, but she began to fall in love with the hotel industry.
She paid close attention to her manager and started taking on more responsibility. By the time she left the hotel, she was the sales coordinator and planning all events and activities.
“That part of the industry is so exciting,” Lewis says. “Being with someone at that moment in their life, helping them bring an image to life, it’s like Disney, where you get to make people’s dreams come true.”
Lewis had found a new career aspiration. Now, she just needed to pursue the educational aspect of the industry.
Lewis contacted different colleges and talked to representatives in various programs, but she still could not find the right program – until she discovered the restaurant, hospitality and meetings management program at UA’s College of Human Environmental Sciences.
“It was perfect, exactly what I wanted to do,” she says. “My professors are just as passionate about this industry as I am. We’re all on the same page, and they understand my desire to finish quickly and get out there and experience the things they’ve been teaching.”
Lewis had the opportunity over the summer to experience some of those lessons first-hand while interning at Blackberry Farm, a small, luxury resort in Walland, Tenn. It was her dream internship and where she thought she wanted to go after graduation. She spent time in housekeeping, guest services and the front desk, but the most valuable piece of knowledge she gained came from one conversation.
“The vice president of the company asked me on my last day what I wanted to do with my life. I told him ‘I wanted to take his job one day,’” she says. “He told me if that was true, not to come back to Blackberry Farm until I was ready to retire. He told me to work at different size properties in the different departments, and work my way up through the departments. You need to have that experience so you can understand what each area does and appreciate the people that work in those areas.”
Lewis’s determination and drive to succeed, as well as her positive attitude in the midst of struggle, will definitely help her on her journey, says Lori McCool, an instructor in the human nutrition and hospitality management program at UA.
“Ashley is a model student and should be admired because she takes charge of her destiny and accomplishes all of her goals,” McCool says. “She reaches for the stars, and that is why she is always glowing. She will absolutely represent the hospitality and The University of Alabama in a very positive way. I would feel privileged to work alongside Ashley at a job.”
Her goal now is to get her foot in the door – starting with a front desk position at the Hilton Chicago, hopefully. Where exactly she ends up or what her official title will be, she doesn’t know. She will, however, learn and experience as much as she can so when she does earn that management role, she can use her experiences to make her future employee’s lives easier and her company better.
“The best part is that I still get to have that connection with people. When you’re working at the front desk, you are constantly interacting with people and solving problems,” she says. “You meet so many interesting people and hear some amazing stories of how they’ve gotten to be where they are today.
“With music, I could connect to people, but I didn’t really know them,” Lewis says. “But with the hospitality industry, I get to connect with people and, if they allow it, share their lives with them. I just feel so much more enriched and blessed to know that person for that moment in their life.”
Did Lewis give up on her dream of music? Not at all, she says. She just exchanged one dream for another.
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This story is part of the Find Your Passion series. To learn more about how you can find your passion at The University of Alabama, please visit UA Undergraduate Admissions.