Judy Ni and Oscar Wang introduced the idea for HospitalityTogether at the Full City Challenge in February 2019

Billy Penn is one of more than 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on economic mobility. Read more at brokeinphilly.org or follow at @brokeinphilly.

Updated 5:20 p.m.

If you’re a Philadelphia high school senior aiming to be the first in your family to go to college, the goal can feel overwhelming. There are so many moving parts to getting there, and then staying there, that it can be hard to know where to start.

How will your job — likely in the service sector, likely close to minimum wage — even begin to cover the costs of tuition and books, not to mention room and board? How will you manage the dueling schedule of classes and work? Factor in the mental strain of a higher education courseload, and you can find yourself at the precipice of a self-fulfilling prophecy of failure.

“I was terrified of going to college,” 24-year-old Timothy Hernandez told Billy Penn. “I didn’t want to be riddled with crippling debt for the next decade and a half.”

Hernandez, who had recently received his GED, turned to a new Philly nonprofit called HospitalityTogether — which has seen an impressive 75% success rate in its initial pilot.

The work-to-college pipeline program, which won the Economy League and Billy Penn’s Full City Challenge earlier this year, came about when education innovator Oscar Wang had a conversation with restaurateur Judy Ni and the two recognized a potentially reciprocal asymmetry:

A lot of Philly students were working in low-earning fast-food jobs that they relied on — and a lot of the city’s top restaurants needed staff.

“There’s a lot of hidden talent in the city,” Ni remembers telling Wang, “and one of our biggest issues in the [restaurant] industry right now is staffing.”

Philadelphia has a particular need for a program that lets students work while they learn. The School District of Philadelphia reported that for the 2018-19 year, nearly 100 percent of its students qualify as economically disadvantaged.

HospitalityTogether was born of the vision that students can earn while they learn in flexible, supportive environments. Ni, who co-owns Taiwanese fast-casual Baology in Center City, joined up with Wang and now helps run the new organization

It’s intended, said Wang, to place people in supportive working environments as it helps get them successfully through the first semester of college, a point at which most students drop out. “You can have a job and we will help you with you financial aid and any paperwork to try to get you to college,” he said.

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Learning online, working with mentors

HospitalityTogether finances itself primarily through contracts with the online university in which it enrolls students and contracts with its restaurant partners.

Its first official cohort of what Wang calls “earners and learners” recently went through a pilot version of the program, which was funded in part by the $5,000 Full City Challenge prize.

Here’s how it works:

  • Students and young adults learn about HospitalityTogether through high schools that already have a relationship with parent organization CollegeTogether, or from events at college fairs and word of mouth.
  • Interested people fill out an application, and if they meet the criteria, are selected for admittance.
  • There’s a two-to-three week “Figure It Out” (or FIO) period, during which they’re given an intro to higher end restaurant jobs and given soft skills trainings and other supportive resources so kids aren’t just thrown into the fast-paced service industry;
  • Participants are then officially placed in entry-level restaurant jobs (think dishwasher, bus-person, backwaiter), at select restaurants in and near the city including a.kitchen, baology, Home Appetit, the Radnor Country Club and Musi.
  • They’re also enrolled in school and showered with in-person supports, including everything from a free transpass for the first 6 months to tutoring to mentorship about workplace politics.
  • Schooling begins at Brandman University, a not-for-profit, low-cost online university based out of California that is part of the state’s Chapman University school system.

Of eight students, Wang said six remain enrolled in school and working inside the restaurants at which they were placed.

As a member of that first cohort, Hernandez works as a dishwasher at Musi in South Philly. He has short-term aspirations of becoming a line cook.

“While I don’t know what I want to do with my life,” Hernandez said, “I feel confident in the fact that I’ll have the assistance and support I need to decide that when I get there.”

Layla A. Jones (she/her) was a general assignment reporter for Billy Penn from 2019 to 2021. Her work has helped underserved community organizations, earned free repairs for property owners who sustained...