June 27, 2015
“I’m never going to school again,” I bragged to myself as the graduation caps rained down on the auditorium floor around me. No more scan-trons.. No more buying books. No more all night cram sessions. So I thought.
After college I continued my career of surf photography, which ultimately lead me to surf philanthropy and I had no intention on going back to school to higher my education. Fresh out of San Diego State University I started a non-profit organization called Surf Resource Network to work with coastal communities in developing nations to ensure the local people are benefiting from the presence of surf tourism, and it has been a very rewarding experience. I have become highly engulfed by the projects and programs we are conducting in Robertsport, Liberia, focusing on health and education, and the small fishing village has become a second home to me. The potential I see for this town to improve their health, education, infrastructure, and job opportunities through the presence of positive surf tourism really intrigues me, and I wanted to help lead by setting a good example.
After visiting the destination for years I decided to start a social business with a friend (Daniel Hopkins- also an alumni from SDSU) that aims at helping increase sustainable tourism to the region and gives back to the local community. Three years after I graduated from SDSU, Liberia’s first surf camp and resort was bornŠ Kwepunha Retreat is ideally located in front of the world-class point breaks of Robertsport and proudly boasts warm water, no crowds, a lush rainforest that grows onto the beach, and is home to arguably the longest wave in the world. Kwepunha Retreat is proudly dedicated to hiring strictly locals from the community and donates 15% of profits to help fund Surf Resource Network’s community health programming.
Rumors of a Hospitality Tourism Management Master’s program were leaked to me by one of my personal heroes and mentors, a world’s leading experts in sustainable surf tourism and SDSU’s own professor, Dr. Jess Ponting. We had been working a lot together while simultaneously launching Surf Resource Network, my organization, and The Center for Surf Research at SDSU, Dr. Ponting’s brain child, and I had a tadpole of an idea: What if I could convince SDSU to let me complete the Master’s program by doing an emphasis in “sustainable surf tourism” while using Kwepunha Retreat as my working project!? However, I knew it would be a hail-marry at best and plus, what was I thinking? Running an international non-profit organization and developing a niche tourism operation drinks up time like college students guzzle a keg. I didn’t have time to for a master’s degree program.
The only way I would have ever considered pursuing my master’s degree was if I did not have to put my organization, my new business, and the life I have created for myself on hold. So I inquired further about the potential new program and threw the faculty my curve ball about Kwepunha Retreat and sustainable surf tourism. At the end of my request, using hushed tones, I mumbled, “And can I do the program from Liberia?” I winced as I awaited their reply.
Turns out SDSU has your back! You don’t need to organize your dreams so they fit neatly into a cubicle, you can shoot for the moon and SDSU will help you get home safely. I was astonished and pleasantly surprised at the amount of support and enthusiasm the professors of the new program gave me. Even though I would have to do the program from West Africa I was encouraged to apply. That’s when I really gave it some thought I pondered to myself, If I can do the program from Liberia, enhance my business while doing my curriculum, and become a leading expert in my field at the same time- what do I have to lose?
I was accepted to the first cohort of the Hospitality Tourism Management Program at SDSU and have been executing the class projects online from Liberia. Kwepunha Retreat has blossomed over the course of the last few months with the development of two beachfront properties, training of staff, and the structuring of business operations and is now open for business. We have already hosted approximately 150 guests and have had several nights where our bookings and inquiries have exceeded capacity. For instance, last weekend Kwepunha Retreat and Surf Resource Network hosted the 4th Annual Liberian Surfing Contest and it was a resounding success; not only was it an amazing event, but Kwepunha Retreat was entirely booked out, so much so that we even rented out our manager’s room- I camped in the yard and my business partner slept in a hammock (check out my write up and photos on the 4th Annual Liberian Surfing Contest featured by ESPN: http://espn.go.com/action/surfing/blog/_/post/8676924/the-rise-liberia). We encourage everyone who has the slightest knack for a cultural experience and the adventure of a lifetime to come give us a visit.
I had convinced myself that I would never go back to school, but I had a change of heart and mind when it became apparent to me that San Diego State University not only would support my ambitious endeavors of pursuing my master’s from Liberia, but they also wanted to be vetted in my success for life. It is very empowering to know that such a stellar program exists with such forward-thinking professors and I confidently recommend this program to anyone working in the hospitality or tourism industry who promised themselves they would never go back to school.
All the best from Liberia,