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LR grad program designed to make leaders of tomorrow

Leaders are made just as much as they're born. After all, everyone learns from someone.

In the Master of Arts in leadership program at Lenoir-Rhyne University, aspiring leaders are picking up the tools of the trade and learning how to not only add to their skill set, but also to the overall effectiveness of their teams.

For Cathy Horton, chair of the culinary arts and hospitality management programs at Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College, that meant learning how to better help her students and to prepare a more qualified next generation.

"I went to a meet-and-greet at LR, and I was so incredibly impressed that I walked away saying, 'This is something I need to do,'" she said. "Everyone was so welcoming, and it has been such a positive experience. I now have a much more well-rounded, critical thinking grasp of my job at A-B Tech."

That's saying something coming from a culinary arts program that has advanced to more American Culinary Federation national competitions than any program in the country.

"We have an award-winning culinary hot food competition team, and we have a really strong reputation in the culinary school world," she added.

But even the best work to improve, and that's what led Horton to LR.

Horton, who is poised to graduate in the spring of 2021, will earn her Master of Arts in community college administration; however, the program is being adapted into the Master of Arts in leadership program and will serve as one of three specializations along with business/nonprofit leadership and instructional design leadership.

For Horton and her students, the timing couldn't have been better.

Every industry has been hit hard since the onset of the global COVID-19 pandemic, but maybe none quite so hard as the hospitality industry, which faced an unemployment rate 157 times higher than the national average at the start of 2021, according to Horton.

With stay-at-home and shutdown orders across the country, culinary arts and hospitality management have struggled.

"The one field that is hiring and retaining jobs is health care," she said. "It's the only field that's growing, and there is a lot to health care. In nursing homes and long-term care facilities, there are kitchens and restaurants. Additionally, many people today are turning to more specialized diets such as vegan or gluten-free. We're helping our students dive deeper into that."

As one of the program requirements at LR, Horton completed a practicum or research project in her field of study. In this instance, she has used information learned from a curriculum development and design course to create a therapeutic culinary certificate program she has pitched, and it was approved by the administration at A-B Tech. Not only will it serve as her final grade in the program, but the class is also open for students at A-B Tech beginning in the summer of 2021.

Therapeutic culinary certificate students take courses in safety and sanitation, basic culinary skills, nutrition, food science and therapeutic cuisine.

"I reached out to our industry partners, and they think it's a great idea," Horton said. "They said they're willing to pay a higher starting wage to someone with this background and skill set, and that goes right back to the curriculum development.

"I think the biggest personal growth since taking the program at LR is that when a student sits down in my office to talk, I can approach them with a better understanding of where they're coming from and how to help them. That came from critical thinking and learning what makes adult learners succeed that I developed in the leadership program."

Of course, the goal is to help aspiring leaders take that next step in their careers.

"I want them to understand their own leadership characteristics and skills," said program coordinator Molly Duggan, Ph.D. "I remind them that their leadership theory can be a bit of a tapestry. Find out what your personal leadership style is and how to use that to make change and build a strong organization and culture."

Duggan said that throughout the course of the program, students — most of whom have experience in their professional careers and hail from a variety of backgrounds — learn how to deal with people and lead teams. They identify problems in their workplace, and they have to identify solutions and work toward their completion.

Students are also tasked with a practicum that is derived as a solution to an issue in their current work environment or to fill a gap in their resume.

"The majority of assignments and all classes allow some freedom and flexibility to address students' individual interests," Duggan said. "I really feel like from the first class, students gain skills to take back and use in their workplace. It's about helping them figure out how to get that next job or move into that next position."