Dec. 6, 2018
When Lukas Striegl first landed in Flagstaff, he was not feeling it.
The high school student from Düsseldorf, Germany, was interested in Northern Arizona University’s School of Hotel and Restaurant Management, but before committing, he wanted to visit the city. It was rainy and overcast as he toured the campus, and he just didn’t feel a connection.
He walked through the rain to a store one day, browsing for half an hour or so before heading back. Outside, Striegl found himself in a new world. Rays of the sun highlighted a clear blue sky, raindrops sparkled on the trees and the mountains and forests flaunted their natural splendor.
“I looked to my left and I saw the San Francisco Peaks for the first time ever, and that’s when I decided this is my place,” he said.
Just more than four years after that moment, Striegl will take another walk—across the commencement stage in the Walkup Skydome as he earns his bachelor’s degree in hotel and restaurant management. He’ll do so as a recipient of the Gold Axe award with community service and leadership to add to his resume.
It’s a moment that almost never happened.
When Striegl was in elementary school in Germany, he was, as he puts it, a difficult child. He struggled with motivation and his teachers just left him alone, so by the time he should have been done with elementary school, he was noticeably behind in a number of subjects. His teachers, seeing him struggle with math, recommended he transfer to a special needs school, and after that, he could continue with Hauptschule, the lowest level of German education. He would do another five years of schooling and likely get a job doing menial labor.
His mother wasn’t having it. She marched into the school and demanded to know their options. She said no to the special needs school, she got Striegl into tutoring, she looked for other options to help as he struggled, and she listened when one of his teachers suggested a private middle school on the Realschule track. He wasn’t yet college-bound, but he was closer.
With that structure, he did well, and when he finished he passed the qualifying tests for Gymnasium, the high school for students preparing for college. After six months at a public high school where he was routinely bullied, he asked to enroll in a private school. It was 45 minutes away by car and 2.5 hours away by public transit. No, his mother told him. It was too far.
Soon, though, he learned a neighbor also went to that school and could give him a ride. Striegl enrolled. He succeeded, in one of his final exams writing for 22 pages. In that moment, he knew for sure his elementary school teachers were wrong about him, a sentiment he was reminded of again when he passed accounting.
“As soon as I was accepted to NAU, I went to my old elementary school teachers and showed them,” Striegl said. “As soon as I’ve graduated and when I go back to Germany for the winter, I’m going there again, wearing my Gold Axe and cap and gown and everything.”
Striegl wanted to study hospitality, and since the United States has the best programs, he looked around. He found a list of the top 20 programs and sent emails with questions to the top 15 programs. Some he never heard from. Some responded with a link to their website.
“And then NAU replied to my email, and they actually replied partly in German and answered every single question that I had,” he said.
NAU was the only school he applied to, and he’s loved the experience, he said. His private middle and high schools were both small, and he had a lot of support and encouragement along the way. He prepared himself to do without that atmosphere at NAU, where he’d be just one of thousands of students.
At the SHRM, though, he found the same environment. His professors were invested in his success, offering opportunities to learn and grow and inviting students over for Thanksgiving dinner; and he joined Delta Sigma Pi, who were his friends, brothers and study partners, even bringing groceries and driving Striegl to the hospital when he broke his ankle. He felt that faculty members trusted him to be an ambassador of the program.
In one such experience, NAU chef Mark Molinaro asked Striegl if he wanted to represent SHRM at the Undergraduate Research Symposium in April, using slow cookers and sous vide machines to show students quick, easy ways to eat healthfully while living on campus. After Striegl said yes, Molinaro mentioned he wouldn’t be there. The students were on their own.
They gave out so many samples that they ran out of forks for the last 100 or so tasters.
“We told the others to take it like a shot,” Striegl said. “That was a great experience.”
“Presented with the challenge of cooking for more than 500 people at the Undergraduate Symposium, Lukas simply said, ‘Sounds fun; I’ll do it!’” Molinaro said. “We at HRM are so excited to follow his journey toward making the world a better place in his own way.”
His post-commencement plans are still unsure; he has applied for an Optional Practical Training position, which is available for international students, and he’s looking for internships or work with resorts either in the United States (he has his eye on Las Vegas) or in Germany.
HRM professor Frances Hill, who had Striegl in class, said his life experiences prepared him to succeed in difficult situations.
“I believe the frustrations and disappointments he experienced in his young life might have caused him to become bitter, but he chose to find and focus on his own compassion,” Hill said. “Furthermore, he’s chosen to view the hurtful reality of the situation he endured and step back and look inside himself for a deeper understanding, determined to emerge in a state of grace.”
Heidi Toth | NAU Communications
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