Avery Gardner is well on the way to an associate degree in Culinary Arts at Grand Rapids Community College, on track to graduate in the spring of 2024. It’s not something they could have imagined a decade ago — or even a few short years ago.
This is Gardner’s third try at a GRCC degree. After graduating from Kelloggsville High School in 2014, they had dreams of becoming a forensic pathologist and went to GRCC for prerequisite classes.
“Unfortunately, I did not do well and wound up on academic suspension,” Gardner recalled recently.
Things took another turn when they had a son in February 2019.
“I put him up for adoption because I was not in a place to raise a child,” they said. “The summer following my son’s birth, I went inpatient and had my meds adjusted. I came out feeling way better than I did going in. I got my own apartment and started to do better. I wanted to do better and be better. To make finding him a loving home worth it.”
Inspired, Gardner came back to GRCC with an eye toward a career in nursing. But it wasn’t clicking.
“After three semesters, I realized that I was not happy and my grades were suffering,” they added.
Still, something was tugging at them.
“I had started working in kitchens in 2022 and fell in love,” Gardner said. “Food had always been my stepdad’s love language, and it became mine, too.”
They started researching and discovered that GRCC’s Secchia Institute for Culinary Arts is among the best in the country. So, they came back to the college for a third attempt.
“The third time’s the charm,” Gardner said with a laugh. “Now, I want to hopefully own my own restaurant or catering company one day. I love feeding people. It makes me happy.”
In addition to carrying a solid load of classes, Gardner also works two part-time jobs as a line cook at local restaurants, hours that add up to 40 hours – or more – of work a week.
For Gardner, what they are learning at school and what they are doing at work often come together in ways that help them realize what a great education they are getting at GRCC.
Gardner recalled a day in early March when they had learned how to dice an onion in their GRCC skills development class.
“And — literally — what was I doing at work that day?” they said with a laugh. “I had to dice vegetables for a stew we were making. That sort of thing happens all the time. The professors I have are awesome because they know what the real world is all about, and they help us every day learn things that will benefit us at work.”
Gardner admitted that working full time and going to school full time is a challenge, but they said two offices at GRCC – Occupational Support Services and Disability Support Services – have made things manageable for them, helping them stay on track while working toward their degree.
“Daniel Nyhof, my caseworker (in Disability Support Services) has been phenomenal,” they said. “Anytime I email him with a question, if he doesn’t know the answer, he goes right out and gets it for me, which is great. When I email him, I’m anxious about something because I just found something out, right? And my anxiety is bad. So, he’s really quick to answer, which is nice.”
The same is true for Occupational Support Services, Gardner added.
“They’ve been really helpful,” they said. “If I’m having trouble focusing or getting my homework done, I can reach out and ask if they have any helpful tips for that, and they always come through. Sarah Rose, who I work with, is so great.”
Gardner is using Michigan Reconnect to help fund their education. The program is for state residents 25 or older without a college degree and provides eligible students with tuition-free access to pursue an associate degree or occupational certificate at their local community college.
And, Gardner said, they have gained their financial aid back after making the Dean’s List last fall!
“I know, if my son knew what I was doing, he’d be proud of me,” they said with a catch in their voice. “I’m proud of me. It’s been a long time since I could say that, but I am.”
This story was reported by Phil de Haan.