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Students restart tourism-career club, then retool it during pandemic

Tourism Student Association slowly resuming in-person activities as leaders foresee brighter future

Tourism Student Association, NASCAR, Phoenix Raceway, Championship Weekend, 2021

Members of ASU's Tourism Student Association (TSA) stand in front of the grandstand at Phoenix Raceway during NASCAR Championship Weekend in November. Submitted by TSA

December 10, 2021

One day after class, a student came up to his instructor in a tourism development and management course and asked why there was no student club related to that major.

Claire McWilliams said she told student Brooks Reece that one existed many years ago, before she started teaching at Arizona State University, but it had been inactive for a long time.

“He asked if I would be willing to join with him and some other interested TDMtourism development and management majors to investigate co-creating one, as he felt it was a no-brainer to have a club to build relationships among students and help them network,” McWilliams said.

The ASU Tourism Student Association formed a short time later, during fall semester 2018. Members wrote bylaws and elected officers, then officially launched the organization in spring 2019, said McWilliams, a lecturer in tourism development and management and hospitality in the School of Community Resources and Development. Today she is one of the association's two faculty co-advisers.

At first, tourism professionals appeared on campus as guest speakers at meetings, where members could ask questions and network, make connections and lay the groundwork for future job searches.

Then, the COVID-19 pandemic ended in-person gatherings. McWilliams said the founding officers had just handed off the leadership to the second group when the pandemic began.

Tourism Student Association leaders adapted quickly, though, transforming their activities into online ones, she said.

“This second group helped keep the plane in the air. I worried that without an on-the-ground component we were toast, but they proved to me that having robust digital content was better than nothing during COVID,” McWilliams said. “In some ways they made a certain amount of lemonade during the pandemic. Today we have learned how to serve both online and on-the ground students.”

Virtual meetings also had an advantage over in-person ones, McWilliams said: guest speakers from out of town.

“Before we stuck to Arizona professionals and executives in in-person settings. But with Zoom we talk to industry professionals in Cambodia or Tokyo,” McWilliams said. “It’s really broadened the horizons of the club in an interesting way.”

McWilliams said during that time former Tourism Student Association President Paige Corbin created the association's website. It has enabled students to have access to information about it and its activities — along with a directory allowing members to find and contact one another — without attending an in-person gathering, McWilliams said.

In addition, the website and Zoom events helped students to form a community that, even though contact was only online, enabled them to make friends and contacts and to support one another.

Eventually, the club was able to schedule activities in person, including visits to event sites such as Phoenix International Raceway. Members also worked helping people get COVID-19 vaccinations last spring in drive-through lanes at Valley sports stadiums.

Read on to learn how current Tourism Student Association board members are keeping the organization relevant and meaningful to students interested in a career in tourism or special events management:

Question: You joined the organization before the COVID-19 pandemic. What challenges resulted once the pandemic started? What did you and other members do to overcome them?

Valerie Brenes, Tourism Student Association president: When the pandemic hit, TSA had to adapt quickly to hosting events in a digital format. I'd say the biggest challenge we faced was the total loss of personal connections. Our club members were isolated, and creating digital events that were engaging and worthwhile was a pretty daunting task. We weren't going to be able to become friends or network as easily. But our former officer team really digitized everything in a matter of weeks, it seemed! Thanks to them, we got our website launched, we’ve perfected the art of Zoom and we managed to learn new ways of engaging and connecting with our members, even on a screen.

Q: Recently, you’ve been cautiously moving toward more in-person events. Talk about what it’s like to plan them and to get speakers to appear and students to attend.

Brenes: TSA is definitely in a key transitional phase. I came into office when everything was already digital, and even though the digital format was once foreign to me, it was suddenly all I knew! It's been a strange process to adapt to, but that's exactly the key: adaptability. Planning our events involves a lot of teamwork. We have five officers, five committee chairpersons and two members in each committee. We generate ideas with our teams, then share them as an officer team. From there, we whittle away at ideas, until we have selected what kind of event we are putting on. We then contact a potential speaker, introducing our organization and our vision for the event. If they confirm their availability and interest, that's when we get to the hard work, including making graphics, budgeting, etc. Our team is a well-oiled machine with the event-planning process.

Q: How have you grown as a learner and as a leader since you first became a TSA member?

Brenes: As a learner, I have really had the opportunity to expand my horizons within TSA. I have had the opportunity to hear perspectives and ideas I'd never even imagined I'd hear. What makes it great is that it is truly a real-world application of classroom concepts. It's been really eye-opening. As a leader, well, that’s a story in itself. I joined TSA as a shy girl with no connections to TSA. But the people within TSA believed in me, and they motivated me to try my hand at leadership. I started as membership and marketing chair before becoming the professional development chair, and now, I am the president! This has taught me so much about leadership, but more importantly, about myself and my abilities to develop professionally.

Q: Where do you think the organization will be heading once you graduate?

Brenes: I am beyond excited for the future of TSA once I have graduated. Our club is expanding so quickly, both in member count and in accessibility. What makes our club great is that we offer opportunities for all tourism lovers, whether they are online students or not, and no matter their major. Anyone can access our experiences! I think our community will continue to grow, making TSA a rich environment for alumni, faculty, student members, and our connections to the professional world to learn, develop and share unique opportunities together. I can’t wait to see what amazing things our current and future members and alumni do, and what strides they take to make the world a better place.

Question: You’re involved in several student organizations and activities. Yet you recently won an award for involvement in every TSA meeting. What is it about TSA that made you decide to give it a significant portion of your time?

Luis Pintor Zavaleta, alumni/online chair: Since joining TSA, I have dedicated my time to learning more about different parts of the tourism industry, making meaningful connections with members and professionals, and finding where I see myself in the tourism industry. TSA has also provided me with a lot of opportunities like volunteering at the NASCAR race at Phoenix Raceway and working at the COVID stadium vaccination site, which allowed me to get hands-on experience. TSA has also been so welcoming and engaging, that I felt as if I had a place in the club as well.

Q: You’re a tourism business major. What do you think the tourism industry’s direction will be in the next two or three years?

Pintor Zavaleta: As we are nearing the end of the pandemic, the tourism industry is starting to recover, which might take a few years in the long run. However, I have high hopes for the tourism industry as we, as people, love to travel and explore. I think with people finding new interests, gearing towards safer activities or even by finding ways to try something new, that this will lead to more doors opening for those who want to innovate the future of tourism.

Q: How have you grown as a learner and as a leader since you first became a TSA member?

Pintor Zavaleta: While I was concurrently in TSA and also taking tourism classes, I had the opportunity to go to TSA events and pinpoint my learning towards what the speakers would say. This would also go for when I started working at a COVID vaccination site, where I was a zone lead in a specific section. At this site is where I was able to connect my learning, practice customer service, problem-solving and communication as well as lead a group of zone support/volunteers. My involvement led me to the opportunity of becoming a chairperson for TSA.

Q: Where do you think the organization will be heading once you graduate?

Pintor Zavaleta: I think with the tourism industry expanding, there can’t be something that TSA doesn’t find that will help its members stay engaged. With the support of our amazing advisers Claire McWilliams and (Clinical Assistant Professor) Erin Schneiderman, TSA will continue to grow and perhaps even expand towards other majors at ASU. My major is in business with a concentration in tourism, so it is part of the business school. If business can be connected within the tourism industry, then other majors can find their connection within the tourism industry that may inspire their interests.

Question: What has your involvement in TSA meant to you? What direction do you think the club will take after you graduate?

Mariah Merchant, board member: TSA has given me the opportunity to meet and make friends who have the same degree program and interests. Being a transfer student I didn’t have any friends at ASU. During a pandemic not being able to be in person to make friends was hard. Being in Claire McWilliams’ class gave me the chance to join this club, which has now led to such great friendships.

Working out at the vaccination sites was a great experience in leadership and gaining new skills. I was able to work with different people and get the chance to make a difference to our community. I was very shy when first joining TSA, but over time I became more comfortable with my club members. I opened up more and even got to meet almost everyone in person. With all our meetings being a learning experience, it has brought great knowledge to me.

After I graduate, I believe this club will continue to make a difference in the tourism community and bring knowledge to those who join in the future.

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