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Unlocking Career Potential: Wichita’s Externships Elevate Opportunities

By Emily Younger Barnwell

“It has made me a significantly better teacher,” said Eric Gentilella. “Not only content-wise but in how I reach students.”

Gentilella, better known as Mr. G, is a culinary expert – teaching students the ins and outs of the hospitality industry at Wichita Heights High School.  

With more than five years of hands-on experience as a line cook, baker, pantry, and pastry chef, Gentilella knows the value of staying on top of the game through continuous learning.

It’s one of the main reasons why he engages in externships. These experiences let teachers like Gentilella step out of their traditional classroom roles and immerse themselves in the professional setting.

“It is incredibly important to understand what the industry is doing,” he said. “We have the curriculum. We have textbooks. You can research cooking methods and different flavor pairings, but if you are inside of a bubble, your kids aren’t getting the full picture of what is happening when they go into industry.”

Since 2013, Wichita Public Schools (WPS) employees have completed 253 externships across a variety of industries including advanced manufacturing, healthcare, hospitality, skilled trades, technology legal and non-profit organizations.

Gentilella has completed externships at DooDah Diner, Reflection Ridge Golf Course, Corporate Caterers, Bella Vita Bistro and most recently at FioRito Ristorante.  

Jason Rickard, co-owner and general manager of FioRito, emphasizes the positive impact of hosting externs like Gentilella.

“We provide an engaging working environment and an opportunity for them to get more practice in a commercial kitchen so they can better educate their students on the realities of working in a restaurant,” he said.

During his 2022 externship at FioRito, Gentilella honed his skills in bread production, bread shaping methods and pasta making, passing his new skills to his students.

“It also helped me as a teacher to create different levels of challenge for my students. I learned a ravioli shape which is relatively simple for students who may have never worked with pasta before. I then learned an agnolotti which is a self-sealing pasta and a little more advanced so if some of my students want to push themselves, they can do that,” he said.

His 2023 externship at the same contemporary Italian restaurant took him to the sauté station, the busiest area of FioRito’s kitchen. Despite the initial chaos, Gentilella mastered the art of remaining calm under pressure.

“It was an interesting experience feeling like I was in the weeds and behind on orders. I had to learn how to organize myself and work my way out of a very busy restaurant service. Now, I can teach my workplace experience kids how to keep cool under pressure, how to organize themselves, where they should be keeping their oil bottles, their vinegar, and their mise en place, so they can work quickly but work intentionally,” Gentilella emphasized.

It's not just about skills; it’s about understanding the kitchen’s structure and the equipment students might use in their future careers. Gentilella is constantly updating his classroom to align with industry standards, ensuring his students are well-prepared.

Employers also benefit from externships. Rickard said externs bring their unique expertise to the kitchen, allowing him and his staff to acquire new skills.

“They teach us as much as we teach them,” Rickard explained. “It is amazing to see how hard these teachers work.”

Why it Matters

Experts say externships are critical for the workforce of the future. They expose students to current industry trends, skills and technologies, providing a bridge between the classroom and the business sector.

“It helps teachers and counselors experience professional settings so they can see the curriculum cross over into the business sector and take their experiences back to their students,” said Carey Keller, the work-based learning coordinator for WPS.

These experiences also lead to invaluable partnerships, creating continuous workplace opportunities for students and educators.

Thanks to Gentilella’s externship at Bella Vita Bistro, ProStart students from Wichita Heights and Wichita East High School got the chance to cook and serve a six-course meal at the restaurant in 2023. The students ran the entire restaurant, showcasing their hospitality skills and gaining practical experience.

Students have additional chances to explore the industry through experiences such as field trips and direct interactions with seasoned hospitality professionals. In fact, FioRito proudly employs a student who first visited the restaurant as a high schooler.

“It is really cool seeing someone make that full circle and being able to provide what we hope is one of the best learning environments in town for young cooks,” Rickard noted.

“It’s been just as important to get these connections and open up those doors not only for myself but for my students as well,” Gentilella said. “It’s shaping the future of education and industry.”

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