Seeing a chiseled, 6-foot-8 young man walking around a refined downtown Denver hotel, some people jump to conclusions.
"I got some remarks," Cain van Heyningen said. "Like, ‘What NFL team do you play for?' Or, ‘Are you in the NBA?' I would just say, ‘No, I'm an intern here.'"
Van Heyningen is a senior starting center and co-captain on the Metropolitan State University of Denver Men's Basketball team. But he also just completed a fellowship during the fall semester at the Renaissance Denver Downtown City Center Hotel. He was one of two fall 2019 recipients of the prestigious Rita and Navin Dimond Fellows Program, made possible by a generous 2014 gift by Rita and Navin Dimond, founders of Stonebridge Companies, a Denver-based, privately owned, innovative hotel owner, operator and developer.
While some tall folks might find the same old questions about their height a nuisance, van Heyningen, a native of Amsterdam, sees them as an opportunity.
"Those remarks are funny, but it's also a conversation-starter," he said. "And there are a lot of people in the industry who can help you, so it's beneficial. You're definitely never out of sight."
The Rita and Navin Dimond Fellows Program allows recipients to gain hands-on experience at select Stonebridge Companies properties across Denver. It accepts MSU Denver students twice a year, selecting among applicants who have completed a minimum of 60 credits toward any School of Hospitality degree program.
And as he does with virtually every topic, van Heyningen soaked in all aspects of his fellowship.
"I've built tremendous relationships, and I've gotten a true insight into what's going on behind the scenes," he said. "You can go to school all you want, but at the end of the day, practical experience is so invaluable, and that's what they gave me."
Beyond his success on the court and through the fellowship, van Heyningen excels in the classroom, where he carries a 3.55 cumulative grade-point average and was named to the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference All-Academic honor roll the past four seasons.
In what's left of his spare time, he's one of the Men's Basketball team's representatives on the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee.
"He's one of those kids who, from the first day I met him 5 years ago, he's always carried himself a little bit differently, always walked a little bit differently in terms of just being a natural leader," MSU Denver Men's Basketball coach Michael Bahl said.
Juggling the court, the classroom and his internship, van Heyningen handled it with aplomb.
"Somehow, you get through it," he said. "There's a certain amount of planning that goes into it. Basketball is out of my control - I don't decide when practices and games are - so that's the first piece. School is just as heavy of a load. So the flexibility of the internship allowed me to make it work."
In the classroom, van Heyningen's people skills are evident too.
"He's not afraid to be a leader, and he also doesn't have such a big ego that he can't also be a good follower," said Jeff Koch, a lecturer in the School of Hospitality. "His personality is very welcoming to everybody. He's a good people person."
In other words, he's a perfect fit for the world of hospitality.
For instance, when the basketball team traveled to Costa Rica last summer, van Heyningen found it was a great opportunity to engage with the local community.
"We had to pull him away a couple of times because the bus was there waiting for us," Bahl said.
As a leader, van Heyningen relishes his time with the SAAC, which includes trying to develop a catalog of internship opportunities for student-athletes.
"It definitely gives you some involvement in how the student body feels," he said. "To represent them is an honor."
Despite being a natural, van Heyningen didn't fully discover the world of hospitality until after enrolling at MSU Denver. It was his basketball prowess that drew him to Denver.
After training at a basketball academy in the Canary Islands, Spain, van Heyningen eventually came to MSU Denver after getting connected with the basketball program by a former teammate who was a Roadrunner.Originally, van Heyningen was a nutrition major - no surprise, considering his impressive physique.
"I value nutrition, and I value eating healthy and taking care of myself," he said. "But it's not something I would want to make a career out of - at least not with the options that are available right after school."
Now, after seeing the hotel industry inside and out, van Heyningen surprised himself with what he discovered.
"I found that I liked human resources more than I thought I would," he said.
Van Heyningen said he likes the idea of keeping workers satisfied and making sure they are treated equally.
"It's like the people business within the people business," he said. "People come to you with their issues, so they have a certain emotional energy. I can relate to people well, and I think they truly believe that I want to help them. I think I'm perfect for that."
By: Rob White