A more powerful RAAM: BGSU program gets ready to accept international students

Connor Zebrowski grew up going to Busch Gardens in Williamsburg, Virginia, and twice hit up Cedar Point while visiting family in Ohio. 

He rode rides. He ate junk food. He saw his future. 

“From 3 years old, (I knew) exactly what I wanted to do with my life,” the 21-year-old Zebrowski says during a recent phone interview.

When it came time for the 2020 graduate of Deep Run High School in Glen Allen, Virginia, outside Richmond, to pick a college, someone told him about Bowling Green State University’s new Bachelor of Science in Resort and Attraction Management – aka RAAM – program. 

According to the college, it is the only resort-and-attraction-management degree embedded in a theme park, with juniors and seniors attending BGSU Firelands and getting real-world experience working at Cedar Point. 

“I looked into it, met with Swathi, and I was like, ‘This is exactly the major for me,” Zebrowski says.

“Swathi” is Dr. Swathi Ravichandran, a professor who in 2019 was named founding director of the RAAM program. 

“I always say I get to stand in front and take credit for things that I didn’t really accomplish because I tend to be the face of the program,” Ravichandran says during a separate phone conversation. “A lot of the groundwork and hard work for the program really was done many years before I was even hired.”

Regardless, she leads a program set for the first time to admit international students. While BGSU Firelands received approval to accept students from abroad in 2021, the RAAM program got its approval only in August, so it does not yet have any in attendance.

“I have gotten inquiries from them over years,” Ravichandran says, “and I’ve just had to tell them, ‘Just hold on. We’re new. It’s going to take a couple of years for us to do what we need to do to get you all in.’ And we’re at that point now.”

She stresses the uniqueness of RAAM for all students.

“This really is a pretty new model for higher education (in which) a publicly traded company and a public university come together to prepare students in a manner that they not just get the academic, theoretical knowledge in the classroom, but they also get that very, very valuable in-the-field learning experience with our partner in (Cedar Point parent company) Cedar Fair.”

Yet while that is the signature aspect of the program, Ravichandran says it’s not the most impressive component to her. Instead, it’s that the experience is tailored as much as possible to the person while also aiming to expand one’s horizons.

“I have a lot of students who are very interested in the people-facing aspect of the job because they associate these types of organizations with those amazing positive memories from when they grew up going to these places, and now they want to play a role in delivering those amazing experiences for future generations,” she says. “But the reality is this is a business, so we also want to make sure that our students have the opportunity to work in finance or accounting, with fraud detention, or they have the opportunity to work in marketing (or human resources).”

To that end, Ravichandran says she and her Cedar Fair counterpart spend time with each student to help select his or her job for the upcoming summer. 

“That relationship between these two institutions is so incredibly strong,” she says. “The mark of a good partner is always one that sticks with you and does their best even when things aren’t going so well – and we started right during the middle of the pandemic. We started summer ’20. I could not ask for a better partner than Cedar Fair in still making sure that we moved forward and we provided our students valuable learning experiences.”

Multiple attempts were made to get a comment from a Cedar Fair representative about the program.

Despite the partnership with Cedar Fair, which owns several “places to play” and “places to stay” across the country, RAAM also could prepare someone to work at a Universal theme park, a Disney property, etc.

“I also don’t want to forget the other businesses that are in Sandusky. I mean, this is a very tourism-centered economy here,” says Ravichandran, noting potential jobs with Great Wolf Lodge, Kalahari Resort and hotel chains represented in the area. 

“One of my graduates is the social media manager for Shores & Islands (Ohio), which is not a big-name company, but it’s absolutely very much within the realm of this industry,” she says. “I have students who manage restaurants that are in and around Sandusky because they wanted to pursue a career in food service.”

Ravichandran, who grew up in southeastern India, certainly sees value in the program for those who will come from beyond these borders.

“I got my master’s and Ph.D. at Iowa State (University) as an international student,” she says. “I will never underestimate the value of the experience that I received here, and I want to make sure that other students from other countries that want to pursue careers in this industry (are able to) take that knowledge back to their home countries if that's what they choose to do. 

After all, as she points out, Disney has attractions in cities including Paris, Tokyo and Shanghai.

“This is a global industry,” Ravichandran says. “You know, everybody, especially after the pandemic, they really want to go out; they want to make memories. There seems to be a shift toward (less) interest in tangible stuff and things and more of those experiences and memories.”

Ultimately, Ravichandran says, RAAM succeeds not just in getting students better prepared for their future jobs but also in providing employers with a stronger field of job candidates. She has data showing that all the students who graduated in the spring are employed.

“The rising tide raises all ships, no matter where (graduates) decide to work,” she says. “When you have a group of people who are passionate about moving this industry forward, that moved the industry as a whole forward no matter which company they decide to work at when they graduate.”

RAAM has about 125 students enrolled at the moment, with the professor expecting it to grow, in part due to an influx of international students. There are also plans to offer the program fully online in the future.

As for Zebrowski, he seems to have thrown himself into the opportunity. In his time working at Cedar Point, he was promoted from associate to supervisor within the first few weeks and is president of the student organization RAIL, an acronym for Resort and Attractions Leaders. 

He has his sights set on one day being the general manager of a park.

“Growing up, I wanted to be a coaster engineer,” he says. “I quickly realized math is not for me.”

Not surprisingly, he suggests those coming into the RAAM program keep an open mind during the experience.

“I”m not really sure 100 percent what I want to do long-term,” Zebrowski says. “As you get more familiar with new things, you might start to enjoy them and find out new things about yourself.”