Frank Miller spent last November more than 13,000 kilometres from the comfort of his London home. And while he’s since returned, his skills remain in high demand in Vietnam.
“I told them I would continue helping them because I want to,” said Miller, director of Western’s Hospitality Services. “I’m not one who believes in starting something and then saying, ‘Have a nice life.’ I’ve been in this racket for a long time; I have the best and worst experiences in my head to share.”
Miller was one of two staffers who recently took part in the Leave for Change program, which engages university staff in international opportunities. He spent four weeks in Rach Gia, in the southwest corner of Vietnam, at a Kien Giang College.
While many of his days were filled with soaking in the unique Vietnamese culture, which included stopping off at a roadside canteen to have a broth soup of water buffalo or fried fish head, Miller knew there was also work to be done. He was tasked with establishing a new hospitality training centre – including everything from a building footprint to developing curriculum to uncovering community partnerships.
Kien Giang College was established in 1966 as a technical school in order to secure jobs to support families, as well as a poverty reduction strategy. There are about 3,000 students, with 300 of those enrolled in the tourism and hospitality sector.
Through his connections at some Ontario colleges, including Niagara, Humber and Fanshawe, Miller gathered the currently successful Canadian curriculums for comparison. The first big difference was time frame.
“They (Vietnam) have a three-year curriculum to push people through food services, whereas North American food services is generally two years. We challenged this process,” Miller said. “We realized we couldn’t get it down to two years as a lot of it is Communist driven – so there is a need to understand the stuff they are mandated to teach.”
They were, however, able to bring the program down to two-and-a-half years, pushing closer to getting students through the program quicker to meet the demands of a growing tourist industry.
“That was a good starting point,” Miller said of the compromise.
Kien Giang College had never partnered with local hotels. In a single day, Miller, with the help of staff and faculty, recruited three hotels and signed off on close to 100 students, or one-third of the program’s enrolment, for work placements.
While a lot was accomplished in a short time frame, Miller admitted there are still areas needing to be addressed. The food services at the school, for example, has lunch pre-plated in the morning around 9 a.m. in an open-air building with no refrigeration. With temperatures hovering around 30 degrees, it’s at least three hours before students begin buying their lunches.
That will hopefully change soon, as Miller also had a hand in – thanks to his sketch on a napkin – the design of the college’s new hospitality centre. They are looking to make tourism and hospitality front and centre, in hopes of doubling their enrolment in that area to over 600 students, he said. Currently using a pair of butane burners to teach, the new facility would include a conference centre, teaching labs and large cooking station to train students how to cook properly.
“They pulled me into the president’s office and asked me what I thought,” Miller said. “They handed me a blank piece of paper and asked if I could have it back to them in three days. Needless to say, I cancelled my first meeting.”
It wouldn’t be the first time a building sprouted up from a napkin. That was how Western’s Ontario Hall was conceived.
“Every time we develop a concept at Western it usually involves doodling on a napkin while killing time on a plane,” Miller said. “Ontario Hall was developed on a napkin from something I saw in Las Vegas four years ago. The day of the meeting with the designers and architects, I just happen to have a jacket on and in that jacket was the doodle, so we were able to kind of get Ontario Hall going.”
While out of napkins at the moment, Miller continues to stay in contact with the staff and faculty at Kien Giang College. He feels his time there was well spent and he enjoys the fact he will still have a hand in the future success of the school and its program.
“I would highly recommend the Leave for Change program, as you get to see another part of the world through a different set of sunglasses,” Miller said. “You will realize how important it is to help another country that needs your skills. You do make a difference, even though it may be minor, but that is a great start.”