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You Visit Tour. Webb Lion Fountain. June 1 2017. Photo David B. Hollingsworth

Graduate Spotlight: Rikki Eskelund

By Betsy Hnath

Rikki Eskelund's phone wakes her for work at 5 a.m. with a ring and an automated text message: "Sleep doesn't pay the bills."

Sleep doesn't earn A's either, but on May 10 Eskelund will graduate summa cum laude from Old Dominion University with a bachelor's degree in communication and theatre arts during the 130th Commencement Exercises. She will also walk across the stage debt-free.

"I always told myself that I wanted to be investing in my future instead of paying for my past," Eskelund said. "That's motivated me throughout my time in school."

Her plan worked.

Since transferring to Old Dominion University two years ago, Eskelund has worked at least 40 hours a week, excelled in five or six classes a semester, participated in extracurricular activities and even trained for marathons.

"She's going to be everyone's boss one day," said Brendan O'Hallarn, lecturer in communication and theatre arts. O'Hallarn advises ODU's student public relations organization, PRSSA. Eskelund is its president.

"You could drop Rikki Eskelund into any program at any university in the country and she would shine," O'Hallarn said. "She is a uniquely driven and talented student."

Eskelund said her upbringing has a lot to do with her internal drive.

Her father is a Marine who is now stationed at Quantico in Northern Virginia and will retire later this summer. His career required the family to relocate 14 times during her childhood. Rather than enrolling Eskelund and her four siblings in multiple schools, her mother taught them at home -accelerating their education.

"I had kind of a different high school," Eskelund said. "My junior year I started taking classes at Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA). I graduated in 2016 with basically my freshman year of college done. Then I did another full year of classes at NOVA, then I transferred to Old Dominion."

Eskelund discovered Old Dominion while visiting her older brother A.J., who was studying engineering at the University.

"One of the things I recognized was that every faculty and staff member seemed to love their job - even the gardeners were just happy to be there," she said. "It seemed like a place where people were really invested in seeing students succeed. I didn't apply anywhere else."

Eskelund was 18 when she started at ODU. She'll graduate just shy of her 21st birthday.

During her first year at ODU, Eskelund and her brother launched a digital marketing firm, shopping their services to local businesses.

"A.J. is a visionary and loved the technical side of things, but he needed a person who could deal with the clients," she said.

When her brother got a full-time job, Eskelund decided against continuing the business.

"It was nice to have a flexible schedule and taught me so much about interacting with people," she said. "It also taught me I'm not super passionate about marketing and I need a stable income. That kind of forced me to look for jobs in established companies."

Eskelund started investigating the hospitality industry, a field she found while taking classes in her minor: parks, recreation and tourism.

An adjunct professor recommended Eskelund interview for a job at a Virginia Beach hotel. Though she didn't get the position, she gained a fan in the hiring manager, who passed her resume to Pam Perry, director of sales at the Courtyard by Marriott in Suffolk. Perry was looking for a sales coordinator.

Eskelund told Perry she wanted to learn as much as possible, but would likely move on after she graduated. Perry took a chance.

"I saw something in her that made it worth it to hire her, even if it was just for a few months," Perry said. "Hats off to ODU for giving her a good education."

Eskelund said she found a true mentor in Perry.

"Because I have a really strong work ethic, I will give 110 percent to anything I'm doing. She was the first person I felt recognized that and didn't try to take advantage of it," Eskelund said. "She wanted to maximize my potential for my own benefit, not for hers."

Perry said employees like Eskelund are rare.

"She's never been late, never called off. She'll stay late and will still be here bright and early," Perry said. "She always has high energy and she comes in with a huge smile."

Eskelund will be leaving the Courtyard to take a new role as a catering and convention specialist at the Main in downtown Norfolk following graduation. She said Perry helped negotiate the salary.

"I'm so thankful to her. She taught me so much. She helped me know my worth," she said. "I'm sad to leave, but she said I needed a new role where I'd be challenged."

"I wanted to grow her for our company, but things don't always work that way," Perry said. "She's someone who doesn't wait for the world; she goes out and takes it."

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