A passionate dedication to lifelong learning and career progression is a common trait of alumni from the University of Delaware’s Alfred Lerner College of Business and Economics. We reached out to some outstanding Lerner alumni to share their professional experiences and insights on improving the world of business for future generations of Blue Hens.
Megan O’Donnell, founder of The Loved Life Wellness, graduated from the Lerner College’s Hospitality and Sport Business Management program in 2006 with a B.S. degree in hotel, restaurant and institutional management (HRIM). Last spring she visited Instructor Bill Sullivan’s Hospitality Facilities Management class to share her experience as a survivor of the 2017 Las Vegas hotel shooting during the Route 91 Harvest Festival.
“I am a mass shooting survivor and while ‘survivor’ is not a term I ever thought that I would use, it’s who I am,” O’Donnell said. “It shaped my life, it led me to where I am today and it has changed, quite frankly, the course of everything I do.
“I became a personal trainer and mindfulness coach specifically because, for the same reason I went into the HRIM program, I wanted to build connections,” O’Donnell continued. “You only get one chance, and nothing is guaranteed. So live the life that you want now, because you don’t know what will happen tomorrow.”
O’Donnell met with Lerner to discuss her career and believes that “all the things I learned during my time in the HRIM program, I still put into practice as a business owner and it has helped me thrive!”
Lerner: Why did you decide to pursue your program at the Lerner College?
O’Donnell: I have always loved people and always knew that working in an industry where I was able to interact with others was where I would thrive. My first job at a diner when I was 15 proved to me that I was right, as I loved working at a “local shop” with all the regulars who got to know me, my name and my story, while I also got to know theirs. I love knowing what makes people tick and what makes them unique, and being in an industry where I got to do that, I knew, would be the perfect fit!
Lerner: What did you learn in the HRIM program that you wouldn’t have learned anywhere else?
O’Donnell: In my time at UD in the HRIM program, I got hands-on experience that I wouldn’t have gotten anywhere else. We were the first class to go through the Lodging Module in the Courtyard, and the ingenuity and excitement of that real-world experience was something I will never forget. It was an incredible opportunity to have such a world class facility right on campus! I also think, lucky for me, it immediately showed me what I already knew: That the night audit was definitely not the best fit for my future career!
Lerner: Please share an example of a course or concept that you were able to apply directly to your life and/or career.
O’Donnell: As a small business owner, understanding marketing, networking and putting your best foot forward has been an invaluable resource. My time at UD in the HRIM program taught me that no matter how book smart you are, or how many classes you pass with flying colors, hospitality and service – whatever that service might be, which has changed for me – relies on you being your own authentic self. You have got to be true to who you are and what you believe if you want people to believe in you and your service, too. People don’t react well to “fake” and whether you’re building an in-person or online brand, they can sense it and it doesn’t work. UD taught me that knowing not only what to do, but how to do it the right way, is the only way to succeed.
Lerner: Describe an important connection you have made through your program.
O’Donnell: I think the most important connections that I have made have been two fold: The students and the professors that guided me. My 15 (yikes!) year anniversary of graduation is this year and knowing that I still have connections to so many people is incredible. I am in fitness groups where we motivate and inspire one another with a classmate (Jennifer Dye, formerly Rambler), and the last four years we’ve spent doing that have motivated and connected me to new people in a way that I wouldn’t have been otherwise if not for our UD connection.
I talk often with Professor Ron Cole on social media, even though he’s a world away these days, and that connection always brings me back to my fond memories of my days at UD. I also still talk to many, many of the friends I graduated with and the joy that I get out of seeing their celebrations – jobs, marriages, kids – has really brightened my life. Those sort of connections are special and not everyone leaves their college experience still feeling so proud to know people 15 years later.
Lerner: If you were to describe your classmates in one word, what would that be and why?
Lerner: How did you balance your career with your studies?
O’Donnell: I worked in the industry that I was studying in so, for me, every day was a chance to get better and to use what I was learning in a practical way. I learned on the fly about what worked for me and what didn’t outside of the classroom environment, and I really think that being able to find that balance at such a young age helped me continue to ensure that I found a work-life balance as I moved throughout my career.
Lerner: What piece(s) of advice would you give to current UD students?
O’Donnell: Enjoy it! There is going to be plenty of time to stress about your life in the future. You’re going to have time to do all the important things, and you will do them. But this time is time that you’ll never get back. So take the chances, live the experiences, say yes to the adventures.
Lerner: What are your professional plans or next steps for the future?
O’Donnell: I am loving life as a personal trainer, mindfulness coach and reiki practitioner. I’ve twice won the Reader’s Choice Best Local Blog in Delaware for my website and social media channels, The Loved Life, which focus on the wellness connection between mind, body and soul. I enjoy what I’m doing and I love doing it, and my next steps are to continue to grow and to change and adapt. Bigger and better, onward and upward. As long as I’m enjoying it, the possibilities are endless.
Lerner: What piece(s) of advice do you have for fellow businesspeople?
O’Donnell: Love what you do. And if you’re not loving it? Do something else. I know that so many people will tell you that money and status and power are what’s important, but you’re not building a life if you’re not loving what you do. You spend a lot of time working – whether it’s for someone else or for yourself – can you imagine the difference it would make if you loved what you did? It all goes back to what I said above and my advice to businesspeople is similar to current students: Nothing is guaranteed. They’re not going to write “worked really hard for a job they didn’t care about” on your headstone. What they’re going to write is how much you lived and loved your life. So whatever fuels your fire? Do more of that!
I wanted to help people be happy and healthy and live a life that they’re proud of. And, above all, I wanted to help people live a gratitude first mindset because, when you’re faced with your own mortality as you’re dodging bullets, you learn to be grateful for so many things you took for granted before.
Lerner: What does it mean to you to be a Lifelong Lerner?
O’Donnell: To me, being a Lifelong Lerner is all about cultivating the connections I still have and helping them thrive. It’s using the knowledge I was given to build a life I love. And it’s remembering, fondly, the friendship and family I made along the way during my time at UD in the HRIM program.