I was in Thailand for Christmas and New Year’s. It was a wonderful trip. The highlight of my trip was my stay at a hotel managed by Araya Rojanapirom, a recent graduate from the Collins College of Hospitality Management at Cal Poly Pomona.

After graduating from high school in Thailand, Araya completed his first study-abroad experience in Europe, where he received a bachelor's degree in hospitality management at Glion Institute of Higher Education in Switzerland, and had two five-month internships at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel Bangkok and the Sheraton Hotel in Tianjin, China.

Araya then found his way to Southern California and spent two more years studying in the Master of Science in Hospitality Management Program at Cal Poly Pomona before moving back to Thailand for a hospitality career. Now, Araya manages a small boutique hotel chain in Chiang Mai, Thailand — Makka Hotels, where Makka is a name derived from the Buddhist word Mahk 8, or the Eightfold Path to enlightenment.

What follows is my interview with Rojanapirom about his journey as an international student and now as a hotel owner/manager.

Studying in the U.S.

Linchi Kwok: What pushed you to pursue a master’s degree in Hospitality Management in the U.S.? And why did you choose the Collins College of Hospitality Management at Cal Poly Pomona?

Mainly for life experience — to travel and live around the world. When I was in Switzerland for three and a half years, I felt like I have grown a lot. So, I believe the studying-abroad experience has turned me into a wiser man, allowing me to see the world in new perspectives.

Additionally, my parents graduated from the U.S., too, and they also wanted me to experience the life in the U.S. Back when I was in Cal Poly Pomona, my sister was studying architecture in UCLA. Lastly, Cal Poly Pomona is famous for its hospitality program and very close to UCLA. That's why Cal Poly was perfect for me.

LK: How was your experience of studying in the Collins College?

My experience at Collins College was extraordinary. I got to meet students and professors from around the world; many of them have a great and interesting background. The courses in the program were designed perfectly for me because I had already had some work experience in the hospitality industry. It allowed me to look at hotel operation issues from a managerial perspective instead of a frontline employee’s point of view.

LK: How was your experience of living in Southern California?

Indeed, what I valued the most was the life experience in California — to live and to travel in California as well as the other parts of the States. I became more mature by living on my own. I got a chance to manage all of my paperwork and documents, payments, and living expenditure.

One year after I moved to California, I met friends with whom I stayed until I graduated. We traveled to many places together; I then enjoyed my time in California even more. One lesson I learned and valued the most was the fact that I am very fortunate to have such a wonderful family and friends who have given me great opportunities; they have always been there for me and with me mentally in every step of my journey until I graduated.

Working in Thailand after studying abroad in the U.S.

LK: What is your job title now? What does your job entail?)

I am now the hotel manager for both the Makka Hotel and MakkaChiva Hotel in Chiang Mai, overseeing all operations in both properties. My job is to manage both hotels, maintain and uphold the service standards, and solve pretty much every problem occurred in the hotels. I also cover the financial, marketing, human resource aspects of the business.

LK: What are the biggest challenges you faced when you took over the current position? How did you deal with those challenges?

The biggest challenge I faced was during the first year when I began working in the hotels. It took time to get to know all of the staff members as well as each employee’s working style, from which I could find effective ways to manage every individual “both physically and mentally.”

I also had to demonstrate to the employees that I could work well with them and that I had the ability to manage the hotels and provide immediate solutions to any problems in hand.

LK: Did your study-abroad experience make it more difficult or easier for you as you deal with those challenges? In what way?

I am a Thai. We have a culture of being shy, not talking to strangers, and most importantly, respecting the elders (meaning that we should not argue or make suggestions to those who are older than us). I believe my studying-abroad experience and the fact that I have been living outside of Thailand make me more open to the suggestions even by those who are younger than me, and I feel I am confident even when I am talking to those who are older than me.

I always teach my employees that even though everyone is not equal in age, we must respect one another and that we are all equal when working in the hotels. Everyone should have a saying so that our hotels can strive for the better.

Better to manage a hotel in Thailand the American way or the Thai way?

LK: In your opinions, what are the similarities and differences between running a hotel in the U.S. and Thailand?

Well, I have never run a hotel in the U.S. before. I, however, believe one similarity is, when talking about hotel operations, there are certain standards that every property must have.

One difference between running a hotel in Thailand and the U.S. is that hotels in two different locations are going to have a distinctive service culture due to its staff members. The way we manage the hotel staff is definitely going to be different.

LK: How did you deal with the differences?

Because I am from Thailand, I understand the Thai culture and know how to manage the employees in the hotel. How I react to or handle certain staff issues would be less challenging than those who are not Thai, for example.

LK: In your opinions, what can the Americans learn from the “Thai way” of managing a hotel? Likewise, what can the hotels in Thailand learn from the “American way”?

I think Thai people work well with one another due to the nature of Thais working together like a family. I believe that reflects on the fact that Thai people are regarded as very friendly and having an excellent service mindset.

The negative side of such nature is that sometimes we Thais might mix private issues with work. So, people would feel more reluctant to express their real opinions to those who are older than them, for example.

We need to learn the American way of staying open to suggestions from everyone working in the hotels, regardless of their ages or seniority within the organization, meaning not only to the “older” individuals. Sometimes, newer and younger staff members make the most valuable suggestions.

Advice to the international students at hospitality programs in the U.S.

LK: Would you mind providing some advice for the international students who are pursuing a hospitality degree in the U.S. and want to move back to their home country for work?

My advice is to prepare well — because the studying and living environments are going to be different from the ones in one’s home country. I became more independent in the States than when I was in Thailand. I had no family to support me or helped me with certain things while I was living by myself in the States, but I enjoyed the experience and felt I had grown more and become more mature that way.

LK: What suggestions will you make to the hospitality programs in the U.S. from the eyes of an international student yourself?

Well, I don’t have any suggestions to give to the hospitality programs, but I encourage the hospitality programs in the U.S. to accept more international students and expand varieties of student nationalities.

A concluding remark

About 1 million international students traveled to the U.S. for education during the 2016-2017 school year. I believe many of them, just like Araya Rojanapirom, would benefit from their living experience in the U.S., in addition to their learning experience in an accredited academic program, but there is something more we can do. What do you think?

If you are in the middle of a study-abroad program, how are your experiences? Please share your thoughts with us.

For those who have completed one or more study-abroad programs, in what way(s) did your experience in a foreign country contribute to the success of your career? What advice will you provide to those who are studying overseas?