When Ben Justus was in his junior year at Cornell University’s School of Hospitality Administration he did what many hospitality education students do—he worked a few internships and learned the ins and outs of the lodging business. It was then that he realized he was a fortunate person. Having received a scholarship from the American Hotel & Lodging Educational Foundation, Justus considered himself one of those fortunate few.
“There are only few fortunate people who get to get hospitality training at a university,” Justus says from an orphanage in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. “I wanted to use my education and the training I had at my internships and jobs to help others.”
These days, he’s living in the orphanage while fulfilling his passion to help others receive a similar experience to the one he was fortunate to receive. He’s started EGBOK Mission, a not-for-profit, volunteer-based program that helps Cambodian students learn the hospitality business and prepares them for university programs. For the students, it’s an opportunity they wouldn’t otherwise get.
Meet students from EGBOK Mission and read their stories: Kea, Ratanak, and Veasna.
With the help of donations and volunteer teachers—many of whom come from the U.S.—EGBOK Mission lives up to its name, which is an anagram for Everything’s Gonna Be OK. Its mission is to empower young adults with the educational and vocational training needed to support themselves as hospitality professionals.
EGBOK Mission actually began in Justus’ junior year at Cornell. At that time it was simply a fundraising agent. “We wanted to start up our own project,” he says. “We raised a bunch of funds but we hadn’t found a project where we felt comfortable sending the money to, where they could run the project on their own.”
So Justus, a Chicago native, went off into the work force, spending a year working in hospitality. But his passion for the project remained strong and after a year he decided to leave his job and head for Cambodia.
He went receiving no compensation for his efforts with the mission (although now he is given a small stipend from a sponsor.) In the early days of the mission, he lived in Cambodia from his year’s worth of salary from his previous job.
“I’d initially visited Cambodia in 2006 and it was a country that stuck out to me, because in Southeast Asia the people are naturally gracious and hospitable people,” he says. “But, they weren’t really being hired into the upper management positions in Cambodia. A lot of those positions are brought in from the Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia, Europe, the U.S., and Australia. They weren’t really hiring the local people.
“Obviously, it’s a very poor country, and they’ve been through the recent genocide, so that’s what stuck out to me,” he continues. “If you go to neighboring Thailand, their hospitality industry is much more developed.”
Cambodia is also a growing market for tourists. While Thailand and Vietnam remain powerful players on the world tourism scene, Cambodia is seeing more visitors these days.
How It Works
EGBOK Mission is a volunteer organization, where hospitality students and professional, as well as non-hospitality professionals, make three-month commitments to working with the students in Cambodia. Justus says that the students largely come from area orphanages. “We work with three orphanages in Phnom Penh and in Siem Reap we work with an all-girls program and a government-run middle school,” he says. [The program has now expanded to include another orphanage and a small town.]
EGBOK Mission trains the students in many different areas of the hospitality business. “We actually go onsite to the different orphanages and teach a three-month hospitality course,” Justus says.
The first month focuses on English and hospitality vocabulary. The group also takes the students to various sites around the country. “We call them tourism trips,” Justus says. The idea is to take the students, who wouldn’t otherwise get the chance to see them, to the various tourist destinations of Cambodia.
The second month focuses on an introduction to hospitality and advanced topics such as ADR, RevPAR, and occupancy. “It covers a very wide area of topics, because we want to let the students find an area that is of particular interest to them,” Justus says. The group also tours hotels, restaurants, and spas to met with managers and learn the operations.
The third month incorporates several guest speakers. “We also tour different vocational schools that the students may have the opportunity to attend,” Justus says. Provided the students show up and are motivated, EGBOK Mission fully funds the students’ attendance in a vocational school.
“During that one year [in vocational school] is when we transition them out to be independent through hospitality,” Justus says. He points out that some of the students attend vocational school, while some go directly to an internship or a job.
Students from EGBOK Mission generally attend hospitality schools. EGBOK Mission helps with the application process. “It’s pretty intensive,” he says. “At one of the schools there are around 550 to 600 students who apply, but they only take 100 students.”
EGBOK Mission requires volunteers to spend three months. “Usually at each site we teach at we’ll have a particular volunteer in charge of the entire site—from the beginning of the course until the end of the course—and then we have other volunteers who help with the application process.”
Most of the volunteers have a hospitality background, but not all. Justus says EGBOK Mission is very selective about its volunteers. “We sometimes get more than 10 people e-mailing to volunteer per day,” he says. “All of our volunteers have a university degree, although it’s not required. Most of them actually have master’s degrees.”
Justus says he gets a lot of support from Cornell directly, including volunteers. He also says the large Cornell community in the United States provides a great deal of support in terms of donations, supplying auction items for fundraisers, and other such funding activities.
Molly Daugherty is on her second stint in Cambodia. Last year she taught English at an orphanage, where she met the members of EGBOK Mission. “When I was teaching English, I connected with the older kids better, so I was really interested in coming back to Cambodia to work with EGBOK Mission,” she says. “I was excited to come back because these kids have an option now instead of staying in the village or staying in the city and getting small jobs that won’t do a ton for them in the long run.”
Daugherty doesn’t have a hospitality background, but she teaches the EGBOK Mission students English and computer skills. “One day we spend on resumes, the next we work on the exams to get into hospitality school,” she continues. “There’s a lot going on, but it’s really fun.”
And very rewarding as the volunteers continue to help the students in Cambodia build a better future for themselves through hospitality.