Let's Talk UNLV

Eliza Wiggins is the Community Programs Manager for the International Gaming Institute (IGI). In this position, she leads, develops, and implements educational programs within IGI related to diversity and community relations with a primary focus on the Young Executive Scholars Hospitality & Tourism Program and Battle Born Heroes Innovate.  Eliza was born and raised in Washington, DC and earned her Bachelor of Arts in Sociology at the University of Maryland, College Park. She spent over 14 years working for the University of California, San Diego where she led alumni, donor, and community engagement and events strategy. Eliza enjoys anything food-related and taking road trips with her husband and two boys. 

YES (Young Executive Scholars) Program Description: Modeled after the University of Nevada, Las Vegas’ International Gaming Institute (UNLV IGI) and University of Nevada Reno’s renowned Executive Development Program for industry professionals, the Young Executive Scholars Hospitality & Tourism Program (YES) is a rigorous summer course of applied learning, team collaboration, and a mentor-guided, case-study analysis of the global hospitality tourism industry. Each summer, under-resourced high school students discover the managerial and executive-level career opportunities available to them in the industry of their backyard, gain insight into the UNLV college experience, and develop new skills to excel in the classroom today and the workplace tomorrow.  The immersive, holistic YES experience allows students to study all aspects of today’s evolving integrated resort industry 

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All right. Welcome to another segment of Let's Talk UNRV on KUNV. You are co-host Keith and Tanya.

Tanya, how was your weekend? My weekend was pretty awesome. I spent it doing a lot of reading, and reading for fun versus, well, technically fun-ish in work, and writing. So I enjoyed my weekend. I have several books that I promised myself. I'm one of those people that collects books that they plan to read but never actually do, and has like 12 books on their Kindle library, and I've only listened to three. I'm that person. So I'm trying this new thing of listening to more than one at a time.

So now how are you adjusting to like, you know, the traditional reading, turning the pages versus the audiobooks? I have a friend, he's addicted to the audiobooks. Oh yes, so I'm audio and Kindle because, you know, as you get older, your eyes say, heck no, to small print. So Kindle is great because I can then stretch it out. So ebooks

are great for me, but I love me some audio books.

So what type of book titles interest you?

Oh, so I am all, unfortunately or fortunately, I'm always looking for things around self-improvement. So I'm very big on this book that I'm reading called The Strong Black Woman, which is a really good book. I've done a lot of Brene Brown readings. I'm doing Oprah's book, What Happened to You? Because, you know, the incident of my profession is I'm always also looking at things related to mental health. And occasionally, I will read a book for laughter and fun, but they're usually the old classics. I find myself always going back to like Gloria Naylor. I love Mama Day. It's one of my favorite books. So I need to discover some new writers.

You know, on the book front, like I I don't know the last time I read a book, you know. Dissertation wise, you know, you know, you read all the scholarly articles, dissertations and other readings, but most of my reading investment has been more professional related and degree related. But on the audio side, I always subscribe to different podcasts. So that's sort of my ritual coming into work in the morning or sort of my decompression. As I transition my routine from work to home, listen to a podcast. It's two that I listen to. One is called Hidden Brain.

Ooh, I love that one.

And then the second one is called 10% Happier. So I alternate between the different podcasts there, but Hidden Brain has a lot of great topics.

It does.

Great topics.

But for me over the weekend, you know, I got to turn some wrenches on my project car. So whenever I have time to do that, it's always great. So you know, now my 14-year-old, he's interested now that he wants to start driving. And so I tell him, well, you know, if you want to get behind the wheel, you got to learn how to change the tire. So you know, I'm training him on how to, you know, loosen lug bolts and jack up the car and check oil levels and other fluid levels. So it was good time over the weekend, spending some abundant time with him and to see his interests grow in terms of being more, I guess, proficient in literacy with dealing with cars. And my seven-year-old, he's always out there with me learning about cars.

So I think he's going to be a genius mechanic by the time he's a teenager.

Yeah, I definitely think you would love audiobooks then because it's a chance to enjoy a book and to quote Beyonce, when you come out of an education program, they break your soul around reading. And so it makes reading feel like work. And the other thing that I was thinking about is as you were talking about being proficient with using a car, I'm like, you know what, it occurs to me I've seen way too many horror movies and dateline movies because I'm like, yeah, you need to know how to fix your car so that some random stranger doesn't have to come up and help you.

So that's a great skill to have just to be self-sufficient in this world. And it's funny, right? Whenever I'm working on a car, I always reach out to my two nephews. And they're always, you know, disassembling, reassembling cars. And whenever they come over, they're always upselling me on, talking about, hey, the quality of your wrenches and the wrench set is insufficient and you're using this old jack for the car. And so they always have me at AutoZone and O'Reilly's spending money on all this

upgraded stuff that they want to have access to when they come over. I love that. I love that, making the best of it for themselves. So I will be by on

Thursday to get my car. I'm kidding, I'm kidding. I think I can do the basic. Well, that's my therapy, you know Whenever I can go in the garage and just spend a few hours out there, you know, just working on whatever, you know It's very very relaxing to just sort of totally disconnect from work related things and just be totally immersed in that Particular project and it's great sense of accomplishment when you fix something and then you like oh now my car doesn't do that anymore. So that's great.

Well, that's mindfulness, right?

That's mindfulness.


But, you know, speaking of positive experiences, we want to introduce our guest, Eliza Wiggins, who is the Community Programs Manager for UNRV's International Gaming Institute. Eliza, welcome to the show.

Thank you. Happy to be here.

And we'll get you started if you could just maybe share with our listeners your origin story of how you sort of got into this work and your current position here at

UNLV. Sure, so I actually just moved to Vegas. I've been here for, let's see, I've been in the position for about a year but officially moved here in May of last year and coming from San Diego for the past 15 years at UCSD. There I did a lot of, I was primarily an events manager and director in the alumni department, and then moved to doing a lot of engagement and community relations work. And I knew I wanted to move to Las Vegas, and so I started looking for jobs. I wanted to stay in higher education. And so I came across this position at the International Gaming Institute, which I'd never heard of before. I was just like, what is this? But the position seemed really interesting. I mentioned I worked with high school students and it had diversity initiatives as part of it. And I always wanted to be a teacher, so I thought that this could really, really work for me. So I was able to get this role. And as the community programs manager, I manage the Young Executive Scholars Program, which is essentially the career development program for high school and middle school students.

I would love to know,

so as you were talking about that transition

and I was reading your bio, I was like, you're definitely diverted from where you started. Yeah, so I actually, my very first job out of college was at the National Association for Multicultural Education, which is a nonprofit focusing on advocating equity, diversity, and education. And that kind of inspired me, okay, you know, I'm going to get my teacher's degree, but I ended up transferring schools and all this sort of stuff. So I just had to finish college and got a sociology degree and then just went right to work. And I kind of just fell into events because that's what I, I ended up being good at it. But whenever I could, I mentored high school students actively throughout my career at UCSD, and I just always had that feeling like, I need to do something else. There's something else out there for me. So I was really excited that this kind of gave me the opportunity to really change my path. I'm so happy that they took a chance on me in order to do that because this is really where I feel like where I belong. Now I know in the bio, I see you're also, you enjoy anything food related, so is it safe to call you a foodie? I am, 100%.

So now since you've been in Vegas, what has been the most interesting food you've tasted?

Well, I grew up in Washington, D.C., which is a very international city, and my dad was a musician. He traveled the world. So I grew up just eating food from any and every country you could name. San Diego, I would say there wasn't as much of that. The diversity in cuisine just wasn't there. But coming to Vegas, I've just been excited. I mean, you can get, you know, five-star amazing chef meal on the strip. You can get an incredible Colombian meal, you know, off the strip. You can think of any country I feel like in the world and be like, oh, I'm really craving that cuisine and, and there's a restaurant for it here. I also like the innovation that that people take here and food just like, it's like a turkey leg place like a stuffed turkey leg. Yeah, it's just stuff turkey legs. I haven't actually been there before, but I saw it. But it's just it's just interesting. It's like a lot of new takes on food too. So I love it. I'm slowly making my way down Spring Mountain That's just my that's my street. I've decided that's just where I'm gonna have all my meals. I've had really great Thai food and My favorite place so far that I've been to is Raku, which is like a Japanese Kind of grilled tapas place and it's so good. So yeah, but I will I will eat anything and everything.

Yeah, they do have a lot of good meal options on Spring Mountain.

Mm-hmm, for sure. Definitely a lot of food diversity. If you were ever in the market for an Italian place where the pasta is just extraordinary, we went to this place called Il Pasto where they make the pasta by hand. It was amazing. I'll have to try that. It was absolutely amazing and so you know as I think about your journey and all the real, it's interesting that you're in a position that features diversity given the diversity of your experiences, given the diversity of your lifestyle and it sounds like you finally found something that aligns with who you are. So tell me what are the things that you really enjoy about this role that you're currently occupying? I think probably my favorite thing about this role is just interacting with the students and serving as their mentor and just helping them. I went to D.C. public schools, which at the time when I went there was like the worst school system in the country. of friends who just didn't have support, the schools didn't really have the resources to offer support to figure out, okay, what am I doing? Where am I going? What kind of career do I want to get into? What's even out there? And there were a couple programs like YES that I experienced that just really I saw, you know, inspired me or inspired friends of mine. It just kind of open that door wider to, okay, what's out there. And so I just, I really enjoy working with the students and kind of seeing their, like, that light bulb go off, like, oh, that's, you know, that's cool. That could be something that I'd want to do. And then getting the phone calls once the program's done, like, hey, so I think I'm going to go, you know, to the hospitality program at UNLV and do the events, you know, concentration. Can you give me more information about that or who can I talk to? Or it's just things like that that I really enjoy as part of this role.

Could you talk about for the Young Executive Scholars Program what the intent of the program is, who is the ideal target student population for this, and sort of what are some of the outcomes that students should expect if they choose to participate?

Sure. So, the current YES program is open to, we have a high school program and we have a middle school program. So, our high school program is a four-week summer program on campus, and it's focused towards high school students who are from either Title I schools, low-income, or first-generation college-bound students. And the point really is to expose them to the diversity of careers and opportunities within the hospitality and tourism industry. You know, like you can go into computer science and you can still work in this industry. You can go into marketing and, you know, work in this industry. So we really showcase the breadth of careers within hospitality and tourism. And the hope is also to inspire the pursuit of post-secondary education or training. So by showing them, okay, this is what a career path that you might want to take, and this is how you get there. And we do that through this four-week program where we bring, which is happening on campus. This year will be the first year that we're actually bringing it back to campus post-pandemic. And we have presentations by faculty, industry leaders. We have, we go on field trips. We, and then each, the students are broken up into teams and they're given, it's the integrated resort design competition. So they're challenged to create an integrated resort of their dreams. So we have our speakers and these field trips kind of give them a knowledge base to create these projects. And the final projects are presented in front of a group of industry executives at the end of the program, and then a winner is chosen. And then the winning team receives scholarship, a scholarship to pursue post-secondary education. So that's the high school program. How is the middle school program structured? So the middle school program is actually just went through a transition. I like I mentioned, I started this role last year and I kind of just took it on. And so now I'm like, OK, how can we change things? What are new things that we can do? So previously we had a middle school program. It's called Battle Born Heroes Innovate, which is kind of a STEM focused activity based experiences for middle school students. And we're shifting that a little bit to bring it back under the hospitality umbrella a little bit further. And it's just going to be part of the YES program. It's not going to have a second name anymore. But our middle school events will essentially be one-day workshops that we're going to do quarterly. And we're going to work with Blackfire Innovation. And we're going to do sessions on robotics and hospitality. So they'll get a chance to go to Blackfire, they'll check out the robots over there, and then we'll do some fun activities around robotics and hospitality. So that we should start our first program, middle school program in the fall. Those sounds like really exciting opportunities. Like really, and you know, I'm struck by your passion, like I can hear it. Like I hear your whole universe light up when you talk about opening doors for kids. And I'm also struck by this idea of exposure, you know, to these opportunities that, you know, kids may not have had before. So let's say that there is a student that's listening or a family member or a parent that's listening, how would they, how do they get connected to you? How, is there somewhere they can go to find out more? Sure. They can go to the IGI website, which is igi.unlv.edu, or they can also send me an email to yes at unlv.edu. And so those are the best ways to get information or request more information.

And then how do you currently identify students at the high school and middle school levels?

Sure, so I'm incredibly lucky to have a partner at Clark County School District in the Career and Technical Education Department, and he is a dream to work with, and he has just been a huge supporter of the program. They also cover transportation, so for the four-week summer program, they provide transportation. We do a bus pickup over at West Prep Academy to bring some students to campus, and so they provide that transportation, as well as the transportation to the field trips. But he helps with promotion, so sending out all of the marketing materials, identifying teachers. We do presentations at high schools. We do virtual presentations for teachers so they can share it with their classrooms, that sort of thing. We also work with a couple of nonprofits in Las Vegas who also share it with their – one nonprofit we work with is Core, and they have – they're a nonprofit that supports at-risk youth in Las Vegas, and so we usually hold some spots in our program for their students.

And is there a cost to students participating?

No, no cost at all whatsoever. It's completely free. In the high school program, they receive free laptops that they can keep. Every single participant does. Luckily, we have a great donor over at American Gaming Systems, AGS, who sponsors our laptops every year. And so that's been awesome. Wow, that sounds so incredible. So I'm all about stories. So can you share a story or an experience that you had with the students at this program that particularly stuck with you or resonates with you?


Let me think if there's one in particular. So one experience that we had was we did a back of the house tour with Wynn. We brought them into the hotel and the person who was giving the tour asked, has anyone been here before? No one had ever been inside the Wynn. I mean, it's like a major hotel right in the middle of the city, right here, but not a single person there had ever been inside the building. So that, I just was like, wow, that's interesting. That's just crazy to think that that, you know, is the reality. But then the back of the house tour was so incredible, the way that they prepared for us and they took us into the bakery and there was our logo on bread and they prepared packets of pretzels and mustard for all the students. And we went into the chocolate shop and they had chocolates and macaroons and just all sorts of crazy things and all prepared and everyone was so nice and welcoming. And the students were just, they just felt great. You could just tell on their faces because everyone treated them with respect. They talked to them like adults, they talked to them as if they were hotel guests. There was no this feeling like, oh, these high school students are coming in here. And, you know, every everyone was just so gracious and welcoming to them. And in turn, you could just see that they got so much more out of it, like, they were listening, you know, they, the expressions, by the time we were done, they were just, you know, they were just incredibly happy with the experience. So that that was one thing. And I have one other other cool thing is that so as part of this, I mentioned, they have to do, they work into teams to design their integrated resort and they present it to a panel of judges. And so, I mean, that's nerve-wracking for any of us to present in front of anyone. And these are executives and CEOs from, you know, from gaming companies and hotels and that sort of thing. And so they're presenting their projects and I always go, I escort them to the room where they're doing their presentation and they are just a bundle of nerves, right? They're just like, oh my goodness, I hope we do okay. And then I was lucky enough to like sit through each presentation and every single one of them just knocked out of the park. And it was just incredible to see like they were so nervous and you know, thought that they were just going to completely fail, but they just did an incredible job. And we had some other folks kind of sitting in the room watching and some people were like I have never seen that side of that student before or wow you know I'm just amazed how that that person really came out of their shell so there's a lot of those types of experiences that we saw through the program. They sound they'll sound like life-changing moments those sound like I don't know those are those I'm grinning from ear to ear. What an incredible gift to give a student, to give a family, to give a community, because when you do these things, you're impacting all of those different levels.

Yeah, exactly. Exactly.

And what are some of the responses you hear from the students or the parents after they've sort of gone through the program, the four-week summer program. Right. So we had a banquet, we do an awards banquet at the end of the program and we had, even last year we had the program online primarily, but we did the final awards banquet in person and I just, the smiles, the same thing you said, like everyone is just smiling and happy and the hugs and the students were just like, you know, in tears were saying bye because, you know, it's crazy how over four weeks you just bonded like that. And I didn't even see these students in person that much. And the parents would just come up to me just like, you know, thank you so much for allowing my son or my daughter, you know, to participate in this program. It's been one of the best experiences they've ever had. We just heard that quite a bit from the participants and their parents. And we did a survey afterwards and we asked, you know, do you want, we're asking our former participants to mentor our future participants and everything. One of them were like, yes, I want to be there. I want to help the next class, you know, of YES students excel in this program. And so I think everyone just really seems very positively impacted by the program. Do you have any, I think the first, we just had our first college graduate who went through the YES program. And when he started the YES program, this is a story that I've been told, you know, college was maybe something, you know, but I think there was an encouragement by our leadership. You know, we always talk about, we give tours of UNLV, we talk up UNLV, but we also just really encourage the pursuit of Hossank theory education. And he graduated, I think, in like three years and then went to law school. So yeah, and so it's just like, wow, that's incredible. Actually, you know, we have people who helped support him, you know, helped him move into his dorm and helped him unpack from his dorm. So we just we like to continue those relationships with the students too. Like once you get into UNLV, don't think, you know, or once you complete the YES program, the relationship doesn't end there. We're always here to support you with whatever you need. And then also it's just funny because I always get these emails or I just submitted my application to UNLV, you know, I get updates from all the students or I just got accepted to UNLV and I get pictures and I just, I love it. But we get that quite a bit now. So not just a success story, a super success story, and turning a maybe to a heck yeah. That's the goal. I love that the relationships continue because I think that that is the investment that you make. And I think that's the transformative nature of it is someone sees the potential, someone believes, believe someone provides the opportunity and someone does not forget about them once that moment has passed. So I'm really grateful to you in this program for the ways in which you support students who might not have had this opportunity otherwise. Well thank you. Yeah I really really enjoy it. I think as a person who kind of grew up not quite knowing what they wanted to do and shifting careers and then things you know like paths and starting one way and ending up another way It's just experiences that I've had I really enjoy helping people find their path And find what they're good at or what they want to do or what they're even interested in for the time being because we all know people change but Yeah, I always tell them anything you need, but you know letters of reference. I'm you know anything I'm here so

That's beautiful. Yeah. And I think we'll get you out of here on this last question. I'll give you the last word. Is there anything that you wish we had asked you that we didn't ask you or is there any closing remarks or plugs that you want to give to about the program?

Sure. A couple of things. I know that we have some the UNLV community listens to this so we are always looking for speakers, we're always looking for mentors, so current UNLV students if you're interested in mentoring a high school student, and we're always looking for donors of course because we have these scholarships. We need financial support to support the program but also the scholarships that we we give to the students to participate. We also of course, always needs support. And all of the information can be found at igi.unlv.edu, or you can email me at yes at unlv.edu. I think that's it. Excellent. Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us today. Thank you for having me. Always excited to talk about YES. Yes, I think on a side note, I believe our Upward Bound program is linked to you. Yes. I think we have some of our students that participate. Last year, we just started kind of the the partnership, I guess you could loosely say, and one of the upper bound students who participated in our program was on the winning team. So I did. Yes. Love upper bound.

Huge upper bound. And I think when I spoke with them, they're looking forward to continuing the partnership this summer.

Yes, definitely. Definitely.

Thank you for all that you do.

Well, happy to do it.

Thank you for having me. All right, Eliza. Well, welcome to UNLV and we're glad you made it to Vegas. Thank you. That you're now a Vegas resident.


Happy to be here.

All right.

Continue to enjoy the good food. Okay, I will.

Take care. All right.

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Transcribed with Cockatoo