In the RAH program, Kalambayi uses her immigration experience to work with refugees

Jessi Kalambayi looks into the camera posed in the Meyer Family Kitchen


Each Friday this summer, the Daniels Newsroom is telling the stories of the behind-the-scenes staff who empower students, faculty and the College at large.

Jessi Kalambayi doesn’t need to say much to tell you who she is. The languages she speaks speak for themselves.

French represents her birthplace in Congo, the world’s most populous French-speaking nation.

Swahili and Lingala are part of the Congolese culture that gave her her name, her palate and her religious beliefs.

In English, you hear the story of her upbringing in South Africa, where she also learned to speak some Zulu and understand a bit of Afrikaans and Xhosa.

“Language is such a huge part of identity because language is very intimate,” Kalambayi said. “It’s how you express yourself. I think it’s important that I identify those things because it just explains who I am, where I’m from and my lived experience.”

Today, Kalambayi is a program manager at the Daniels College of Business’ Fritz Knoebel School of Hospitality Management. Since January, she has led the Ready for American Hospitality (RAH) program—a unique offering that provides newly arrived refugees with the skills necessary to navigate American culture and obtain jobs in the food service industry.

Since 2012, cohorts of adults from all over the world have visited the University of Denver campus for an intensive five-week training course. Each student learns the ins and outs of working in a kitchen, customer service skills, interview prep and how to fill out American tax forms. At the end of the course, they work alongside Fritz students and a highly acclaimed chef to prepare a multi-course dinner at the Public Good Gala or DU Vin celebration.

Kalambayi works with refugees in the RAH program to prepare them for successful careers in the United States. (Photo courtesy of Jessi Kalambayi)

Kalambayi is at the center of it all, finagling the logistics, teaching courses and working alongside the African Community Center to recruit the community members who will take part.

“From Day 1 you’ll often find people who are super shy or afraid or not confident,” Kalambayi said. “They may not even know much English and so they’re not quite sure that they’re ready to get out into the workforce, but they have to because they don’t have a choice. I am a huge part of that progress. I get to see them from the very beginning and see how their confidence grows, helping to teach not just English but a lot of the skills they’re going to need once they start working.”

Connecting with RAH students comes naturally to Kalambayi, a two-time immigrant. Though she left Congo when she was less than a year old, she sometimes felt alienated in South Africa: physically removed from her Congolese heritage but ethnically different from her peers.

Deadly, xenophobic violence pushed Kalambayi and her parents to emigrate to the United States in 2016. They secured a green card through the diversity lottery program.

At Metropolitan State University of Denver, Kalambayi chased a psychology degree, navigating culture shock and the fear her peers would view her South African vocabulary (where a car’s trunk is known as a “boot” and a traffic light is called a “robot”) as a sign of lesser intelligence.

She hoped to be an immigration lawyer, until something shifted during her senior year. An attorney advised her to gain experience with a refugee agency, so she secured an internship at the African Community Center. After she graduated, she joined the ACC as a full-time case aide and a coordinator for RAH.

When her boss announced his departure from the RAH program, he also encouraged Kalambayi to apply for his position.

“At the time I did not feel ready at all,” she said. “I felt like I was super new, I was not quite experienced with the RAH program itself. But I knew I was passionate about working with refugees. I knew that from the moment I stepped into ACC. Being able to do not just the refugee work but to also be in an institution like DU felt super right to me.”

The job, she says, has been a wonderful fit. Her experience as a multilingual immigrant is no small part of that. The interpersonal skills she’s acquired as a model and as an interpreter in her church have been useful too.

“I feel like all those different parts of me help to connect with the people that I do work with,” she said. “I’ve seen some of the most brilliant people walk through this program, knowing they have so much to offer. Sometimes they just need someone willing to lend them an ear or the type of space where they feel they’re understood and heard. Knowing I can be part of their journey and have a little bit of impact, even if it’s just on their confidence, that keeps me going.”