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BBAH alum’s experience shows the importance of connecting

Andrew Buwalda thoroughly enjoyed studying political science in university.

He has the bachelor of arts degree to prove it. But he also remembers not being overly fond of the class sizes, especially in early years. 

Even as the number of peers joining him in a lecture hall shrank as he progressed through his studies, it didn’t do much to narrow the gulf between Buwalda and his professors. It was something he wished had happened.

“You’re sitting in a lecture hall with 2–, 3–, 400 people. It’s very impersonal,” Buwalda recalled. “Sure, in later years when it’s smaller classes, it’s still 50 people and it’s still hard to connect with a professor.”

That changed when Buwalda enrolled in the Bachelor of Business Administration — Hospitality (BBAH) program at Niagara College after tapping into his experiences growing up in Ontario’s Muskoka region for career inspiration.

Buwalda’s parents owned a marina on Lake Muskoka, and his summer jobs were spent helping them operate the business.

Andrew Buwalda

“I always enjoyed tourism-focused businesses so this seemed like a good idea, this program,” Buwalda said.

Even better, BBAH class sizes, where he focused on the finance side of running a hospitality business, were small. And connections to teachers weren’t just possible. They were inevitable, especially when Buwalda was in one of Paul Willie’s classes in his first year at Niagara. 

“I definitely took to his style of teaching,” Buwalda said. “He has a big personality.”

More than that, though, Willie would become a mentor to Buwalda, helping the future regional director of finance and analysis for Skyline Investments to find his footing in hospitality finance and flourish throughout his career.

Willie introduced Buwalda as a student to the Hospitality and Financial Technology Professionals (HFTP), a professional development group for the finance and technology side of the industry. Realizing the opportunity before him, Buwalda became a student member and maintained his connection to the group after graduating from Niagara in 2011. 

These days, Buwalda, who has a hand in many aspects of Skyline Investments’ business of real estate development and running resorts, including Deerhurst in Huntsville, volunteers as HFTP Ontario chapter president and on the organization’s global board of directors. 

Most recently, he earned his Certified Hospitality Accountant Executive (CHAE) designation from the group — another accomplishment achieved thanks to the encouragement of Willie.

Now Buwalda is chipping away at his Chartered Professional Accountants (CPA) designation.

“(The CHAE) is not the same as the CPA but what it does is reflect your commitment to the hospitality industry, finance specifically, and gives you the chance to strengthen these skills… and demonstrate you can do it,” he said.

Buwalda has returned the favour of mentorship demonstrated to him by Willie, and professors Jeff Stewart and Janet Jacobsen, by twice a year attending meetings of the Niagara College HFTP student chapter for speaking and networking engagements. 

He emphasizes the importance of establishing professional connections when he visits the college to speak to students.

“Get involved in a number of things until you figure out what’s right for you and then stick with it when you graduate,” he offered.

Maintaining those connections, like the one he still has with Willie and Niagara College years after graduating, is also essential, he noted.

“He is a friend and definitely a mentor in terms of the experience he’s had in the hospitality industry but also his involvement in HFTP,” Buwalda said. “I was really happy with my decision to go to Niagara College. The one thing I got from my professors was to get involved in the industry. Get in front of people in the industry who want to share what they know and want to help out.”