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In August 2020, Tom Whitaker was appointed executive director of The Carrington, a senior living community in northern Chicago.

Assuming a leadership position can be challenging, especially during a global pandemic. But Whitaker had a support team at his fingertips. His enrollment in USC Leonard Davis School of Gerontology’s Master of Arts in Senior Living Hospitality (MASLH) Program gave him access to experts.

Whitaker says, “I was taking classes that were directly related to my day-to-day work. Not only did the classes help me navigate COVID-19, they also helped accelerate my development as a leader in my community.”

First student to obtain Certificate in Hospitality from Cornell University

The MASLH program offers a unique approach to training future leaders in the senior living industry. Students can earn a Certificate in Hospitality from Cornell University’s Hotel School along with their MASLH from USC Leonard Davis School.

Cornell uses an online platform called eCornell. Each class is two weeks long and broken up into digestible pieces. Students watch short videos, take quizzes and participate in online discussions with classmates from around the world.

Whitaker was among the initial cohort of MASLH students in 2019. He’s the first to complete the 17 classes needed to earn a Certificate in Hospitality. Though he still has two USC classes left to earn his MASLH, he is thrilled to have reached this milestone.

Whitaker says, “The classes offered through eCornell brought my master’s experience to another level. The interaction with professionals in the hotel industry was invaluable. And the courses that I was taking concurrently through eCornell and USC complemented each other perfectly. It shows the thoughtful planning by USC Leonard Davis and Cornell in developing this program.”

Training to solve real-world problems

They say timing is everything. For Whitaker, the MASLH program offered exactly what he needed, when he needed it.

As COVID-19 emerged in the spring of 2020, Whitaker was taking a course in leadership and management. He says, “The class reminded me to focus on the big picture, which was to keep people safe. I quickly took on roles outside of my traditional job description. For example, communicating with residents and their families was critical, so I started sending out daily updates. To date, I’ve sent out well over 300.”

Whitaker also assisted the nursing team in coordinating with state and local agencies. “At a time of fear and uncertainty, my USC Leonard Davis School training helped me stay calm and focused,” he says.

As things opened up, Whitaker took courses in marketing and branding at USC Leonard Davis and digital marketing through eCornell. He used this knowledge to work with his marketing team to attract new residents.

Whitaker says, “In class, we’d discuss how older adults’ perceptions of senior living were changing during the pandemic and how marketing messaging also needed to change. I would bring my class notes to work to help me prepare for our weekly marketing calls. As a team, we managed to increase occupancy throughout the pandemic, compared to the national trend of decreased occupancy.”

Charting a path to success

Smart, hardworking and dedicated, Whitaker was ripe for success. In 2009, he graduated from Loyola University Chicago with an MBA. Jobs were scarce due to the recession, so he took a position as a front desk concierge in a senior living community. Over the next eight years, he was promoted to sales assistant and then to accountant in the administrative offices.

In 2017, Whitaker came to The Carrington as their business office manager. Now, as executive director, he credits the MASLH program for helping him transition into this leadership role.

Whitaker is 39 and on the younger side of other executive directors he’s worked for. He says, “The MASLH program has helped me interact with my team, most of whom have more experience in senior living. Taking these courses demonstrates that I’m committed to my role and learning more about their area of operations. It shows that I want to do everything I can to understand their challenges, remove obstacles and set them up for success.”

The MASLH program is cultivating the next generation of senior living leaders, like Whitaker. These leaders are responsible for caring for the growing population of older adults in the U.S.

Recently, The Carrington was named in the Best of Independent Living category for 2022-2023 by U.S. News & World Report. Whitaker says, “The MASLH program has been incredible for me and has set me up for success. I would highly recommend the program to anyone who is interested in furthering their career in senior living, including getting up to the executive director level.”

To learn more about the Master of Arts in Senior Living Hospitality degree program at the USC Leonard Davis School of Gerontology, call us at (213) 740-5156.

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