NOTE: This story was originally published in the Winter 2022 edition of IU Kokomo's alumni magazine.
KOKOMO, Ind. — Alyssa Newsome had always dreamed about being a cast member at Walt Disney World Resort.
A Kokomo Experience and You (KEY) trip while she was a student at Indiana University Kokomo made that dream feel attainable.
Newsome, B.S. ’22, is among the more than 1,600 students who have participated in KEY travel since the program began in 2016. There are nearly 90 KEY experiences currently planned for the 2022-2023 academic year.
While earning her degree in hospitality and tourism management, she and classmates went backstage at the Florida resort, learning how Disney creates magical experiences for its millions of guests each year.
“My KEY trip helped me realize the thing I was dreaming of, and the field I was going into, was the right choice for me,” said Newsome, from Columbia, South Carolina. “When I was on the trip, I saw myself in the people around me, and the people working at the Walt Disney World Resort. Seeing people thrive in the field I was in encouraged me to finish my education so I could do the same thing.”
Travel has been a hallmark of the KEY program since it was founded. The goal is to provide students with real-world experiences, connect them with people, and offer a travel experience within their major. Destinations have included sites significant to World War II in Germany, France, and England; a business incubator in Nashville, Google headquarters in California, Indiana Dunes National Park, ESPN in North Carolina, behind-the-scenes in security at Gainbridge Fieldhouse, and much more.
Disney sets the industry standard in hospitality and tourism, so seeing its behind-the-scenes operations made Newsome more excited to work in the field.
“It gives you an inside view of the real world, and the experiences you can have in the field you want to go into, and the people who already work there,” she said. “It gives you motivation in your career, and to really home in and make sure you learn as much as you can, to be prepared when you graduate.”
Another perspective of Disney World
Walt Disney World has been a popular destination for programs in addition to hospitality and tourism, with students in criminal justice, psychology, business, and sociology applying their own discipline to the parks.
Samuel Garcia Lopez visited with a psychology class, which looked at details park planners employ to evoke specific feelings in visitors and immerse them in storytelling.
“Getting the backstage access IU Kokomo was able to provide helped you understand what’s happening in the park. I was able to use my training to understand how they built these parks to make people feel like they are literally in a different world. They explained all the little details that have such a big impact when you are there as a guest.”
Garcia Lopez, B.S. ’21, said even more important than the academic learning was how the trip expanded his world. He grew up in a family that vacationed by driving to stay with friends, so flying on an airplane and staying in a hotel were new experiences for him.
Because of that trip, he’s traveled more on his own, and encouraged his family to do so as well.
“It changed my perspective on how big the world is,” he said. “It was overwhelming at first, but it made me feel confident I can live within it. I can push for my dreams. My KEY trip broadened my horizons personally and professionally, and it vastly affected my family. They’re traveling more because of me.”
Learning to be more worldly
KEY travel gave Alex Martakis, B.S. ’21, his first experience going overseas to the United Kingdom with the Innovation Symposium.
“One of the things that comes out of studying abroad or going to an unfamiliar place is that it expands your world view,” he said. “Expanding your scope gives you a new way to look at things and makes you more empathetic. Opportunities like that make a student more worldly and more understanding of people from different backgrounds.”
A School of Sciences trip to Silicon Valley helped him solidify his choice of major.
“I had a lot of trial and error in college in choosing a major,” he said. “Having that exposure early on as a computer science major gave me confirmation that this is where I fit in. At places like Google, Facebook, and Apple, we spoke to people who work in the industry, and they talked about their day-to-day life and how they got there. As someone new to the major, that was very helpful.”
He also appreciated the exposure to California, which showed him it was someplace he could live. He’s now in a master’s degree program in computer science at the University of California San Diego — one of the top-rated programs in the country.
“My experience helped me get to where I am today,” he said. “That is something I’m very thankful for. Just getting all that exposure early on was very impactful on me.”
Alumni contribute to student experiences
As faculty plan trips, they often look for ways to include alumni to share their experiences with current students.
Doug Showalter, B.A.’05, shared his experiences in the music industry with 20 students in a School of Business trip to Nashville. Showalter, who earned a degree in communication arts, is a full-time music producer and songwriter. He studied music in California after graduating from IU Kokomo.
It was meaningful to him to speak to students from his alma mater.
“I’m out doing something not really related to what I went to school for, but I think people are more astute these days about the role of higher education,” he said. “The skills I learned earning my degree helped me function in the world so I could think in a macro way and have a career in music."
"Being asked to speak to students said to me that IU Kokomo felt I was somebody who was a good representation of what a degree from there could accomplish, and how it can play a role in helping you pursue your dreams.”
He invites other alumni to explore sharing their life experiences with current students through the KEY program.
“I encourage them to make space in their lives to share their stories in a very candid and vulnerable way,” he said. “When I was in music school, my favorite part was when teachers would talk about what it’s really like out there. The more access you give students to people in the real world, the better. I put a lot into it, and I felt like I got a lot back from it.”
Education is KEY at Indiana University Kokomo.