HHS Faculty Profile: Sandra Sydnor

Updated from a 2018 Purdue Today profile written by Joseph Paul.

Sandra SydnorSandra Sydnor, an associate professor in the School of Hospitality and Tourism Management (HTM), works every day to achieve mindfulness in her own life and in the lives of her students. Sydnor is researching how travel, such as studying abroad, can help people become more mindful, or more aware, of experiences taking place at that moment.

Sydnor is a member of the Purdue Tourism and Hospitality Research Center and is a faculty coach for the Purdue Center for Faculty Success (PCFS), where she often discusses mindfulness and how it can help faculty achieve a positive work-life balance.

What other responsibilities do you have at Purdue?

Like most faculty here at Purdue, I’m involved in department, college and university-wide committees and task forces. I serve as an advisor for the National Society of Minorities in Hospitality (NSMH). The purpose of NSMH is to aid in the recruitment, retention and advancement of minority students in the hospitality industry. I’ve found it to be one of the best student organizations on campus for accessing and building a career. Industry professionals, recruiters and C-suite level folk are super involved in NSMH and have recurrently looked to NSMH members to fill their pipeline of exceptional jobs and opportunities.

I’m also a recently appointed director of diversity, equity and inclusion for the School of Hospitality and Tourism Management. There are nine of us in the College of Health and Human Sciences (HHS), one from each academic unit. Our charge is to foster diversity, equity and inclusion across our respective units and to plan and implement programs that encourage formal policies and informal diversity, equity and inclusion-influenced environments.

How did you develop your current research interests?

My dissertation is about the effect of community resilience to natural disasters on industry resilience. Having been an entrepreneur, I’ve long felt that the community in which a business resides and the people of that community are in a circuitous web of interdependence. One affects the other. I continued my research in resilience in the social sciences once I arrived at Purdue, and I continue that stream of research to this day. But the ways in which I define resilience have broadened and include sustainability and mindfulness. The evidence for mindfulness procreating resilience is surging. Those who meditate, a mindfulness practice, have a lessened tendency to emotionally shut down or become overwhelmed. It is also the case that mindfulness is beginning to show up in disaster literature, especially the growing body of empirical evidence in disaster recovery literature, as a way to insulate against stress-related paralysis and increase psychological resilience.

Mental health and well-being are being compromised like no other time in history; COVID-19 and its variants have merely exacerbated that. We’ve seen more students using prescription drugs to control fear, anxiety and depression than ever before. We know mindfulness and mindfulness training have an evidence-based, positive influence on mitigating those very same things.

When I arrived at Purdue in 2009, I had just moved from a larger metropolitan city with a rich social network. I didn’t know anyone here and saw very few people who looked like me. Plus, I was on the tenure track, and everyone on the tenure track lives or dies by the sword of “publish, publish and publish more; be a phenomenal teacher; and be collegial.” I felt my well-being beginning to suffer.

I joined the Purdue Center for Faculty Success program before Purdue had an institutional subscription, and eventually I became a PCFS faculty coach. It was through my coaching circles I learned about mindful meditation, so many coaches had a mindfulness practice and were advocating for it. I started practicing mindfulness and talking about it with those I coached … I became a practitioner out of necessity. So, with that background, and witnessing students showing up for class but not really ‘there,’ I just put the two together. I’ve had students meditate at the beginning of class and prior to presentations. They tend to be more present, thoughtful and engaged after only a three-minute meditation. I’ll never forget the time a student shared with me that it was the only time during his day he really had an opportunity to just stop. The only opportunity he had to just think during the day, running between classes, participating in class discussions, doing homework on break time, and staying up to speed with campus events!

What is your background in academia?

My undergraduate engineering degree from Michigan State University landed me at Burger King’s company headquarters in Miami, Florida. I taught as an adjunct faculty member at the largest community college system in the country, Miami-Dade Community College. When I moved to Columbus, Ohio, as a Burger King franchisee, I taught at several colleges in the area, including Ohio State University and in the MBA program at Franklin University. I came to Purdue as a newly minted Ph.D. from Ohio State. I spent a lot of time in industry prior to getting my Ph.D., but I’ve always taught as an adjunct faculty wherever I landed.

How do you apply your industry experience in the classroom?

I operated three Burger King restaurants across the cities of Columbus and Dublin, Ohio, and all my classes are infused with this entrepreneurial spirit. Having been an entrepreneur, I know the rewards that come from making something where there was nothing. It is so fulfilling. It also is the perfect “lab” to put theory to application. I teach a business feasibility capstone class for all HTM majors, and I teach it as though it’s a class for start-ups. We use Lean Canvas, a popular methodology with real start-ups, especially in the tech space. It’s iterative hypothesis-testing of a minimally viable product (MVP) and finding the best product-market-fit. It’s exciting to teach real-world skills and hear students be able to talk to anybody about how to give birth to a feasible business! We’ve had several students graduate from our program and start a business, which for me is gratifying evidence that we’re contributing to economies and communities in such powerful ways.

How does HTM prepare students for life after graduation?

Beyond an academic curriculum that fuses theory and practice, we prepare our students to live in the world as citizens of the world. Our School of Hospitality and Tourism Management recently merged with Consumer Sciences. It’s been a good marriage and we believe that we, maybe more than any other unit on campus, embody the diverse and inclusive culture that organizations, government and humanity in general now want to cultivate. We feed, house, educate and provide experiences. We are ambassadors to the world’s cultures! So, we take the business of becoming diverse, embracing diversity, inclusion of all, regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, religion, or anything, and invoking equity in our day-to-day decision-making, seriously. We’re far from perfect but we’re on the road. It helps, tremendously, that we have the biggest champion of DEI and hospitality right here in our college, Dean Marion Underwood.

So, we take the business of becoming diverse, embracing diversity, inclusion of all — regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, religion, or anything — and invoking equity in our day-to-day decision-making, seriously.

Academically, in addition to the capstone course, most students do a rotation through HTM’s restaurants, the John Purdue Room and the Boiler Bistro, before they graduate. Students will go on to work for corporate America, big-brand names, or for smaller, boutique-like companies, and they’ll be able to contribute immediately because they’ve already had the experience. There’s an element of service excellence that catapults companies to be high-performing leaders. It’s that service element that distinguishes us from other disciplines, and it’s also the reason why industries like healthcare and tech are coming to us now and saying, “How do we design extraordinary service into the architecture of our business?”

The School of Hospitality and Tourism Management is one of nine academic units in Purdue University’s College of Health and Human Sciences.