At 18, Karen Giselle Nava’s dark eyes shine with the passion of youth and clarity of adulthood. That’s because she was forced to grow up faster than most. Nava began caring for her two sisters, then 5 and 7, during her sophomore year, when her parents moved back to Mexico after her father’s work visa expired. It was the teenager’s choice to take on the responsibility, knowing that their future was in America.
“Leaving me and my sisters here, especially at such a young age, is one of the most unselfish decisions they have made as parents,” she says, “but we are a family that strongly believes in making sacrifices to better our lives.”
So Nava and her sisters, whom she calls her “little shadows,” moved in with her grandmother and uncle, with the understanding that she would be the girls’ primary caretaker. Although it might seem tough to give up a normal teenage life, Nava believes that skipping a carefree adolescence has helped her succeed where many of her peers have struggled. “There was no one there telling me to do my homework; I just had to do it.”
After Nava graduated from Valley High School’s Academy of Hospitality and Tourism, she had an opportunity to come aboard full time at the Cosmopolitan after her senior-year internship. But, armed with a $28,000 Epicurean Scholarship—awarded to students who demonstrate passion for pursuing a career in the hospitality or culinary industries—she opted to continue her education instead. She is now in her second semester at UNLV’s College of Hotel Administration, learning all she can about an industry that meshes perfectly with her experience and personality. “I blame my past for my being able to adapt to different situations very quickly and yet keep a calm and positive image of myself,” she says with a laugh.
Nava’s mentor, Christina Clifton, a food-and-beverage professional with more than 20 years of experience, has no doubt that soon every major resort in town will be knocking on Nava’s door. “Karen’s level of maturity is impressive. Passion is the number-one emotion you need to be successful in the hospitality arena, and she has that in spades.”
For Nava, hospitality is not just a job, it’s a chance to touch the lives of everyone she meets. “It is my passion, being able to help others. Because at the end of the day, what [guests] are going to remember is that one moment when something was done for them.”
Nava aspires to be an executive, and she has no illusions about what it takes to get there. “A woman who wants an executive position requires more dedication and sacrifice than a man. But if you’re passionate about something, you won’t mind the sacrifices.”
Nava’s “little shadows” know all about her sacrifices—and one day, others will, too. “My big goal is to open up my own foundation, because I really believe in helping up the next generation.”
She already has a running start, assisting the seniors who came after her at Valley. “I am mentoring them now so when their interviews come for Epicurean [Scholarships], they are prepared.”