For 15 years, Gaby Villaseñor had that nagging, “What if?” feeling.
“I had wanted to go to culinary school since I was in my late teens,” said Villaseñor. “I was applying to schools in my early 20’s when I learned I was pregnant and put my plans on pause.”
Then, it happened – a realization that it’s never too late to pursue your dreams, and never too soon if your life isn’t satisfying.
“I was working in an office job, miserable and stressed all the time,” she recalled. “I made the decision that enough was enough, and I was ready to get my life back and pursue my degree. I quit my job and applied to Richland Community College when I saw that it was nearby. I had no idea how I was going to manage life, but my son was old enough and I felt my career path wasn’t working any longer for me.”
Richland’s Culinary Arts program works with many students like Villaseñor that are at a life crossroads and ready to explore a new career path. Regions Bank in Decatur, Illinois, has supported the college’s Culinary Scholarship Dinner for several years in its commitment to workforce development.
“Richland is preparing today’s students to become tomorrow’s chefs and culinary industry team leaders,” said Bart Rose, Central Illinois market executive for Regions Bank. “But they’re doing much more than that. They’re empowering students to dream bigger and helping them develop life skills. They’re also working with restaurants seeking greatly needed additional talent to place them into careers they may have never considered or imagined. We’re proud to support this innovative program.”
Richland’s courses are taught in an interactive group environment, with additional hands-on experience served up at Bistro Five Thirty Seven, the student-operated restaurant.
The pandemic required Richland to completely rethink both.
“Before COVID, we typically had between 12 and 16 students in a class,” said Chef Brian Tucker, director of Richland’s Culinary Arts Institute. “We limited our labs to eight students at a time, changed the kitchen floorplan to prevent crossover and minimize risk, and have been operating on a hybrid system. Our students have really risen to the occasion.”
That rise included transforming the Culinary Scholarship Dinner’s eight-course meal hosting 200 people to a virtual format. Julie Melton, executive director of Richland’s Foundation and Development, proposed the “Bash in a Box” concept to reconnect with supporters while leveraging a student learning opportunity.
“We were looking for ways to keep people engaged,” said Tucker. “After not holding our 2020 event, we didn’t want people to keep missing out. Julie mentioned the popularity of home delivered meal kits and the idea was born. Our students put together the guest boxes. It offered them a great way to see how to put on an event.”
Linda Lockwood was grateful for the event’s return, even if it meant preparing the meal in her own kitchen during Tucker’s live cooking demonstration.
“The Culinary Scholarship Dinner is always amazing,” said Lockwood, a Richland supporter and relationship consultant with Regions Bank’s Institutional Services team in St. Louis. “Meeting the students and hearing their stories is equally amazing. This program meets students where they are and opens up a new world that extends far beyond the classroom.”
That new world extends hundreds or even thousands of miles away from Decatur, with travel to China, Singapore, Malaysia and more. But not during COVID.
“We were so disappointed to cancel our Italy trip a couple of months before the students were to leave,” said Melton. “This is something they look forward to for months.”
Tucker and Melton are doing everything possible to make a difficult year-plus less so for students. Beyond academics, that means providing encouragement and resources as needed. The duo worked with The Good Samaritan Inn to start a food pantry for Richland students and their families, with the school’s Horticulture department growing vegetables to help stock it.
“You bring food to where people need it,” said Melton.
“We’re a close-knit group with a family-like atmosphere,” added Tucker. “We’re here to help students succeed. My door is always open, especially if they’re struggling.”
Villaseñor felt that support from day one. “Richland gives students a nice security blanket for their first two years,” she said. “They’ve been more than helpful during COVID, making it financially possible for me to go to school full-time and never struggle as a mother. I never once panicked I would have to drop out to maintain my family.”
Richland is equally grateful for support from companies like Regions and advocates like Lockwood.
“Linda is always right there to help,” Melton said. “We never have to ask.”
Richland’s support inspired Villaseñor to continue her education. She’s currently earning a Bachelor’s degree, hopes to obtain a Master’s degree, and wants to teach children and families about nutrition.
“I took a chance and it all worked out as it should have – or even better,” she said. “I never once regretted my decision.”
Creating a future filled with asking, “What’s next?” rather than “What if?”
Get to Know Two Additional Richland Culinary Students
Like Gaby Villaseñor, Toni Stoner also believes it’s never too late to start a new life chapter. She enrolled in Richland’s program at 65.
“I began my culinary adventure in August of 2019 after my job was eliminated,” said Stoner. “I plan to start my own catering business at the young age of 66!”
A career change brought Jared Potrafka to campus as well.
“I was working in sales but always had a passion for cooking,” said Potrafka, who also plans to launch a catering business. “I’d previously worked in restaurants and enjoyed the industry. This program is providing me with a good mix of hospitality, sales and art while fueling my passion.”
That passion for Stoner includes learning and practicing the creative aspects of food presentation.
“I can’t wait for the upcoming Garde Manger class,” she said. “This is where you learn all of the fancy designs and cuts for fruits and vegetables to display on event tables. It was the class I really wanted to take.”
Potrafka is a fellow at Richland’s Bistro Five Thirty Seven and appreciates the unique opportunity to work alongside Chef Brian Tucker, director of Richland’s Culinary Arts program.
“The Bistro at Richland is a very special place,” he said. “I like being able to execute the vision of Chef Tucker by applying technique and skill in the kitchen when preparing food.”
The lessons Richland has provided to Potrafka and Stoner extend beyond cooking.
“The biggest thing I’ve learned about myself is that as long as I stay focused and committed, I can see my goals come to fruition,” Potrafka said. “And I’ve learned everyone here is eager to help me achieve my goals.”
“I’ve learned it’s never too late to learn new things, no matter what age you are,” added Stoner. “Although I would suggest that if you know this is something you want to do, you should do it before you hit 65. Chef Tucker is fantastic because he will work with you to address any issues you may have to help ensure you complete the program. I’m grateful for his support.”