Celebrating Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage month: From American dream to dean of the largest hospitality school in the U.S. | FIU News

On a hot, South Florida day, as boats and kayakers pass by outside his office window at FIU’s Biscayne Bay Campus, Michael Cheng reflects on his role leading the largest hospitality school in the United States through a pandemic, the hospitality industry’s resilience and his unique American story.

Now dean of the Chaplin School of Hospitality & Tourism Management, Cheng’s journey began 10,000 miles away in Southeast Asia.

“Growing up in Malaysia and watching western sitcoms, movies and TV shows, there was an attraction to the U.S. After I graduated community college in Malaysia, I transferred to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.”

He intended to study Management Information Systems (MIS) but realized he didn’t like sitting in front of a computer all day.

“I was a people person.” 

He changed his major to business, but it was too broad. Then a talk with a hospitality professor changed his future trajectory.

“The light turned on when I found out what hospitality management was all about.”

He graduated with his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Restaurant/Foodservice Management from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, then went on to get his Ph.D. in hospitality management from Iowa State University. 

After working in corporate America for businesses, such as Swanson Food Company, he moved on to academia and teaching. He made his way to Miami more than seven years ago, as an associate professor and director of the food and beverage Programs at FIU hospitality. After a short time as interim dean, he was appointed the school’s fifth dean in February of 2020.

Just a month after being appointed to the role, COVID-19 sent the world into a lockdown and hospitality changed forever. But within weeks, together with the FIU Foundation, the school donated the first $500,000, and help raise an additional $500,000 to help create the SOBEWFF® & FIU Chaplin School Hospitality Industry Relief Fund to provide immediate financial support to independently owned and operated restaurants and bars impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic in Miami-Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach counties.

“Those were precarious times when our industry was in jeopardy, so we took immediate action through the fund and encouraged our students to stay the course and use their transferable skills to pivot through the pandemic,” Cheng says.

Over the past three years, the dean’s accomplishments have continued to grow. He helped the school elevate its rankings and reputation to the 8th best hospitality program in the United States and 33rd best in the world, improved the 4-year graduation rate to almost 80%, created a first-of-its-kind Diversity, Equity & Inclusion professorship, and helped raise the single largest corporate gift in school history from Bacardi USA to create the FIU Bacardi Center of Excellence, an educational beverage management partnership with the iconic and largest privately held spirits company in the world.

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 Cheng with FIU Hospitality alumni at the school’s 3rd annual Rising Stars alumni event in November 2021.

 

Nearly three years later, the hospitality industry is thriving more than ever.

“Hospitality is remarkably resilient because people love to travel, explore, celebrate with friends, and create lasting memories that only the hospitality and tourism industry can provide,” Cheng says.

Now, with Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month coming to a close, dean Cheng reflects on the role of Asians in America. He applauds but doesn’t agree that attempts to build connections and describe a large, diverse community of people from more than 40 countries in Asia and the Pacific should be attempted during just one calendar month. As a naturalized American, he thinks it’s best to leave the labels and classifications behind and just celebrate.

“Personally, I don’t think there is anything wrong with asking a person: “Where are you from?” The U.S. population is so diverse that it is hard to assume anything. Let’s all embrace our roots and celebrate our culture, whatever that may be, and move away from trying to codify or classify individuals.”

Speaking of celebration, Cheng has some advice for his students who stayed the course and are now graduates and entering the hospitality industry.

“While you’re in college, travel as much as you can, experience as much as the world has to offer. The world is huge, and you should take up any opportunity no matter where it is,” he adds.

As for what’s next on his American journey, Cheng might revive a pipedream of opening a restaurant one day if the right opportunity came around. In the meantime, his work at the school, in his office by the bay, is far from over. He continues to create new opportunities for the school, meet with industry leaders, and raise the bar for the future of hospitality and its next generation of leaders.

“We’re going to continue to improve our rankings and reputation. We’re going to be the best in the universe.”

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Cheng and hospitality master’s degree students at Spring 2022 Commencement.

 


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