Sonya Carey cooks up recipes for success for foster youth while pursuing USC’s MS in Hospitality and Tourism.
For Sonya Carey, cooking and food service are about more than nourishing the body. She knows that the skills involved can also enrich opportunities for young people.
As a food service manager for the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), she helps ensure students get the nutrition they need to focus on their studies and other activities.
Carey crafted a cookbook, Make It or Bake It, that goes beyond recipes to provide inspirational strategies for foster youth as they age out of the system and move to the next stage in their lives.
To expand her own opportunities, she turned to USC Bovard College and its online Master of Science in Hospitality and Tourism.
Appetite to Serve
USC Bovard’s MS in Hospitality and Tourism is designed for busy professionals wanting to advance their careers in sectors including food service, travel and recreation. Students can choose to earn their degree in one or two years. The curriculum covers every aspect of the industry — from data analytics and marketing to talent and financial management.
“The program is helping me understand the management and director side of the industry,” says Carey, who holds a bachelor’s degree in hospitality and food beverage management from the Art Institute of California. “So I’ll be able to move up in that area.”
But Carey is taking what she learns in the program even further — not just for herself but also in helping others build their own futures.
Make It or Bake It
Carey subtitled her cookbook “Recipes for Transitioning Foster Youth” because, she explains, “some age out of the system and are pretty much just left on their own.”
By writing Make It or Bake It, Carey aims to fulfill an unmet need and help brighten such futures. “Other hospitality sectors hire formerly incarcerated people and those who are refugees, so I thought, ‘why not encourage foster kids to enter these professions’?” she says. In addition to easing the industry’s labor shortage, she hopes to help vulnerable but motivated young people “make the transition so they don’t risk running into issues of substance abuse or homelessness.”
For the book, Carey not only drew from her expertise in food preparation but also from her own experiences. “I wanted to do a project that involved my own background of being a foster kid,” she says. “I went into the foster care system when I was 11 and was adopted when I was almost 15.”
Her adoptive mom — who is also an author — encouraged her creative process, while Carey’s enrollment in the USC MS program gave her the impetus to start the book project.
Although she knows people who encountered negative experiences in the system, Carey found her own journey from foster care to adoption a positive one. “It helped me be better at what I do,” she explains. The experience taught her to be flexible and not stress out when faced with a new challenge.
From Private Restaurants to Public Schools
Carey became passionate about the culinary arts at an early age. “My focus has always been food and beverage,” she says. “I’ve worked in the field since age 18 — about half my life.”
She quickly gained experience in the restaurant trade, ranging from customer service to baking to food production planning. Then she shifted to a management job overseeing nutrition — and more than 50 employees — in the Chicago public school system. In May 2021, she started her current job at LAUSD.
“It’s a lot of making sure that staff have what they need and that we’re serving the meals on time, on budget and following USDA guidelines,” Carey says.
Carey, who plans to complete her MS in a single year, says, “Anybody who’s considering this program should really just do it. It’s [streamlined] and you’ll have supportive instructors who’ll work closely with you. They understand that a lot of us have jobs and are balancing work with our classes.”
Her favorite courses include Global Hospitality and Tourism, taught by Hicham Jaddoud, which introduces the program. “It pumped me up and got me ready for everything,” Carey says. “It was also interesting to learn how many different types of tourism there are — including space tourism!”
Another standout for Carey is Diana Catalina Beltran’s class on Ethics in Hospitality and Tourism. “It’s so interesting to get all the different perspectives, since some students work in hotels, while others handle events, and then there are those of us in food and beverage,” Carey says.
But although the hospitality and tourism industry takes many forms — each with its own terminology — she learned from the program’s Revenue Management class that the fundamental concepts are usually similar. “So the hotel sector uses the term ‘average daily rate’ for what’s called ‘meals per table’ in food and beverage,” Carey observes.
And while the program is delivered online, she finds getting to know her fellow students to be anything but a remote experience. “We created a Slack channel and communicate a lot through that,” Carey says. “That’s been a great way for all of us to connect and to share resources.”
Next on the Menu
Already a food service manager, Carey plans to apply her newly acquired knowledge to becoming a training specialist charged with preparing new employees to excel in their jobs. “The MS program is really allowing me to grow at L.A. Unified,” she says. “I’m also looking forward to getting certified to teach culinary arts in the school system.”
Carey remains as upbeat about prospects in hospitality and tourism as she is about her own expanding opportunities. “Even though we’re still nowhere near where we were before the pandemic in terms of labor and financial levels, our instructors are expressing a lot of hope,” she notes. They also share a lot of resources to help students fulfill that optimism, she adds.
“There’s a really positive outlook about what the industry will become again — and what it can achieve in the future,” Carey says.
For her own part, she is determined to help foster youth who want to work in food and hospitality find their own success in the industry as well.
Learn more about the MS in Hospitality & Tourism program.