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A first-gen story: ‘76 graduate Jeffrey Wolff

March 27, 2019

Alum credits NIU with hotel management success, gives back  

Jeff Wolff

Jeff Wolff started at Marriott as a bus boy about 45 years ago while still in high school and now travels throughout the world, working with more than 5,000 hotels.

A vice president for Market Operations and Guest Experience at Marriott International, Inc., Wolff has never forgotten the university that helped him get where he is today. 

As a first-generation college student when he left Chicago for Northern Illinois University in 1972, Wolff had a tough first semester. He not only had to learn to live on his own, he had to learn how to be a college student.

“I was lucky to have some great instructors who helped me figure all of it out by putting some structure around myself and my campus life,” he remembered. “Everything from there on, ended up pretty good in terms of grades, adaptability and friends.”

On holiday and summer breaks, he’d work part-time at the Chicago Marriott O’Hare to earn money toward college.

He graduated with his degree in management in 1976, and steadily worked his way up the ranks at Marriott.

“I think that the education and experience at NIU enabled me to do that,” he said. 

In a testament to his devotion to NIU, he became a founding member of the university’s advisory committee for the Hospitality and Tourism Management bachelor’s degree program in 2003. The committee has helped build awareness around the program and sponsored numerous scholarships for students, many of whom, like Wolff, are the first in their families to go to college.

Among the J.W. and Alice S. Marriott Foundation Scholarships are those for Marriott Culinary Arts-to-Hospitality Management for student from community college culinary arts program, Marriott Hotel-Track Retention for students currently working in the hotel industry, Marriott ProStart to College for students entering NIU from ProStart programs and Marriott Scholars for community college graduates. 

Wolff knows firsthand how difficult the college experience can be for students, especially those venturing into unknown territory. 

His parents might not have gone to college themselves, but they always pushed their children in that direction. He’d toured other Illinois colleges in high school, but was most attracted to NIU.

“I felt comfortable with everyone I came in contact with,” he said.

Feeling a bit overwhelmed at first by how different college classes were from those in high school, he said he soon learned to rely on campus resources, including the professors. “The NIU experience made it easier,” he said.

He now offers this advice to today’s first-generation students: “Don’t be afraid to ask for help. If you’re not sure what you should be doing, don’t hold it in. Seek out advice, seek out help from people who have done it before.”