The Cornell Connection: How To Take A Productive Gap Year

A student studies on the third floor of Statler Hall as fall colors peek in the windows.

Like many undergrads, I worried about attending online classes. That’s one reason why I took a gap year over attending the Cornell School of Hotel Administration last year. While I was a bit uncertain at first, I gradually realized that my gap year experiences exceeded my expectations and were incredibly rewarding. It’s a year that I will always remember.


At Cornell’s School of Hotel Administration, I am known as a “Hotelie” and part of a tight-knit community. Hotelie is the official — and super catchy — term for a Cornell student studying hotel administration. It is also the term for members of the alumni body. Cornell’s hotel school is what people think of when they are looking for one of the best educations in business and the hospitality industry. More importantly for students in the program, the culture and environment are unparalleled.

Caleb Trieu

First, the strategic location allows for a tight-knit culture. Hotel students all primarily have classes in Statler Hall, informally known as “Statler High” by students. It allows for the roughly 1,000-person student body to develop natural connections. Second, the hotel school teaches students not only about hotel operations, as most people would assume, but the business of hospitality. Think real estate, finance, human resources, development.

Through the Hotel School, I expanded beyond traditional hotel operations. I had dinner with Frontier Airlines’ VP of Human Resources and toured Hudson Yards, exposing me to the airline and real estate industries. Finally, the Hotelie culture is found around the world and allows the service culture to expand beyond Ithaca. For example, every year, students attend “Hotelie Weekend” in New York City to visit companies, meet alumni, and have fun. While I was working in San Francisco during my freshman summer, I attended a Cornell Hotel School alumni event which opened up my understanding of what type of lives Hotelies had on the West Coast.

When you think of the School of Hotel Administration, imagine a community where students from an array of backgrounds come together because of their passion for service. Every Friday, Hotelies hear from hospitality leaders during a guest speaker series. For example, I heard from Shake Shack CEO and Hotelie Randy Garutti during my sophomore year. Beyond his charismatic personality, Garutti shared his perspectives about his career and life which resonated with me. He spoke vividly about his time working at Chili’s and the importance of volunteering for hard work even when the work — think cleaning toilets and similar tasks — isn’t glamorous. He shared the power of a smile; it’s contagious and changes the ambiance in the room. My learning didn’t just come from the classroom, but from priceless moments to engage with guest speakers like Garutti.

Now, imagine trying to replicate all of this virtually.


While it might seem like taking a gap year was an easy decision, it wasn’t. Though my family and friends were supportive of my gap year idea, I had my reservations since I would possibly be behind my peers, and the future of my education was uncertain. However, I wanted to preserve the in-person learning I enjoyed so much. When viewing my college years from a life perspective, the benefits outweighed the hesitations. I initially had no solid plan for my gap year since I decided to leave only two weeks before Cornell resumed classes. Despite this, my gap year was a once-in-a-lifetime adventure filled with learning, and the Hotel School became so vital to my life beyond the traditional four years at Cornell.

With no solid plan for the fall semester, I frantically sought work opportunities in the hotel or real estate industry. Finally, out of the blue, I heard back from HREC Investment Advisors, a hotel brokerage company founded by a Hotelie. The owner and I discussed a few of my aspirations. Soon afterward, I was preparing for an internship in Denver. I was shocked — within days I was able to find an internship at a prominent real estate brokerage company because we were both Hotelies. Turns out, I would work with an associate who was also a Hotelie. I had always heard in guest speaker events that Hotelies look out for each other, but experiencing this first-hand was surreal. It was an amazing experience taking what I learned from my Principles of Hospitality Real Estate class the semester prior and using it day-to-day.

Right before I finished my time at HREC, American Airlines published an internship opportunity in their network planning department. As a self-proclaimed “AvGeek” (aviation geek), I hopped on the spring semester opportunity, as I wanted to view the hospitality industry from an airline perspective. Yet again, the Hotel School was crucial in helping me land this opportunity as well. Coincidentally, I knew a Hotelie who worked in the department, and we both worked at the same hotel one year apart. My alumnus friend was extremely helpful in providing insights about his work and time at the airline — stories and experiences that were crucial for my success in the recruitment process. I moved halfway across the country to Dallas where I learned to develop an analytical and data-analysis skill set by forecasting new potential routes for the airline.

My gap year ended with a summer internship at United Airlines in their customer strategy & innovation department. During my time at American Airlines, I spoke with a Hotel School alumnus and was informed of the posting. The casual conversation added up to an internship offer two months later. It ended up being a fantastic opportunity to focus on project management. Throughout the summer, I spearheaded a pilot rideshare program and went to various United airport hubs across the country to roll out a new customer service software.

Statler Hall


My gap year covered everything from technical real estate models to project management for an airline. Beyond that, I learned so much about myself when living independently in Dallas and Denver. So much of my gap year success stemmed from the Hotel School. I learned the vital business skills needed during my first two years at school such as crafting effective emails and leveraging Excel for data analysis. The relationships I developed through Cornell opened up new opportunities throughout my gap year. On a humorous note, Costco’s rotisserie chicken really helped me get through those hectic workdays and made meal prep easy, allowing me to devote more time to work and time off.

Beyond my industry learnings, the gap year gave me confidence to embrace uncertainty. Before the pandemic, I had a strong Type-A personality; I needed a plan for everything and would crumble when unexpected events occurred. During my internships, I was encouraged to make decisions with little information and be independent. I would not have lived in new cities and explored them on my own otherwise. Now, I draw on my gap year experiences to use in unexpected scenarios as moments for opportunities. If I could roll out a new rideshare program to different airport groups in San Francisco International Airport with success, surely managing an academic group project that had shifting deadlines was achievable by comparison.

Thanks to my gap year, I’m coming back to Cornell with a fresh perspective. Before my gap year, I felt that I had to know everything about an industry to be successful, but this wasn’t the case. I learned that employers were simply looking for students that have a baseline business acumen and an eagerness to learn. With that in mind, I’m coming back to Cornell with a mindset to simply be a “sponge” and enjoy the learning process. I’m continuing to take my required business and hospitality classes. However, I can now draw on my personal experiences to connect school concepts. For example, my Business Computing class took on new meaning when I used VLOOKUPS to help interpret airport data and PowerPoint presentations to create digestible project updates for my team.

Cornell University


Taking a gap year was one of the best college decisions I made, despite the initial fears of wasting a year. If you are considering a voluntary gap year, I encourage you to consider some of these areas:

1) Know what you want in a gap year. Have a “north star” to guide your “why”. By having a clear direction and objective, you can use your time effectively and come back to college with a new-found perspective.

2) Understand your “why”. Do you want to take a gap year because you feel like you still don’t know what to pursue? Do you need a break from the pressures of college? Both are absolutely valid reasons to take a pause, but make sure you look at the opportunity cost. In other words, what are you giving up in exchange for a gap year?

3) Go back to school after the gap year. I can’t emphasize this enough! If you have a great gap year, it becomes difficult to go back to the pressures of college. As a fellow college student, take my advice. Your parents and future self will thank you.

Pandemic or not, a gap year can be a great opportunity to get a much-needed break or learn in unique ways. For me, the gap year has allowed me to come back to Cornell with a wealth of real-world knowledge that will allow me to take advantage of my last two years. Who knows, maybe you’ll have some exciting and unforgettable memories that you’ll carry back to school like me.

You can thank me later.

Caleb is from Bakersfield, CA and studies Hotel Administration at Cornell University where he aspires to combine the technicalities of business with the warmth of hospitality. His career interests include strategy consulting, real estate, and general tourism. Previously, Caleb interned at American Airlines, Hilton, United Airlines, and HREC Investment Advisors in various business-related roles.

At Cornell, Caleb actively engages with the student community with his involvement in the Dean’s Student Advisory Board; Cru; and Phi Chi Theta, a professional business fraternity. During his free time, he enjoys reading airline articles; jamming out to his favorite music artist, Lauren Daigle; and grabbing food with friends.

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