“They asked me to name the two main ingredients in hollandaise sauce, and I didn’t know,” recalls Joy Jackson of her failed interview attempt for a culinary job at a Columbia, Mo., Holiday Inn.
“I would never miss that now,” she said. “It’s one of the first things I learned as a student in the culinary arts program at Scott Community College.”
Jackson represents a growing segment of the working adult population returning to school to enhance skill sets to qualify for good-paying jobs. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, enrollment of adults age 25 and older in degree-granting institutions is expected to increase 18 percent over a 10-year period ending in 2025.
But for many, Jackson included, earning a high school equivalency diploma is the necessary first step. Her story demonstrates the importance of adult education and literacy programs in helping thousands of Iowans each year achieve the skills and training needed for college and careers. To bring awareness to the impact of adult education on the Future Ready Iowa initiative, which calls for 70 percent of Iowans to have education or training beyond high school by 2025, Gov. Kim Reynolds has proclaimed Sept. 24 – 30 as Iowa Adult Education and Family Literacy Week.
“I didn’t like school when I was 16,” Jackson said. “I was scared to ask questions because I thought it would make me look stupid. That just discouraged me from going to school so I dropped out.”
Jackson worked a string of entry-level jobs in various restaurants after dropping out. She loved cooking and had dreams of being a chef and owning her owning her own food truck. But her lack of education and culinary experience was holding her back.
“I dreamed of going to Le Cordon Bleu in St. Louis, but it was really expensive,” Jackson said. “And then I found out I couldn’t start even if I wanted to because what I thought was a reputable high school completion program wasn’t actually accredited. I was back at square one.”
Jackson moved to the Quad Cities area to be closer to family. While working a temporary job at a warehouse in Milan, Ill., Jackson’s supervisor could see her potential and encouraged her not to give up and to try again.
“She told me ‘this job isn’t for you’,” Jackson said. “She said you need to go back to school – I want you to go back to school.”
Jackson’s success story started in 2014 when she enrolled in the adult education and literacy program at Eastern Iowa Community College’s (EICC) West Davenport Center to earn her high school equivalency diploma. It wasn’t easy: Classes were every day from 8 a.m. to 4:30 or 5 p.m. And Jackson had a history of second-guessing herself.
“When I was younger, I always thought I just wasn’t smart,” Jackson said. “I didn’t think I had what it takes to be in school. But it turns out that I am more of an auditory learner and I learn best by doing. My teachers recognized that and they were able to provide me with accommodations. It turns out I am smart, I just learn in a different way.”
One of Jackson’s champions was Bridget Johnson Frisk, a former career navigator in EICC’s adult education and literacy program.
“I tried to help Joy feel more confident because that is what she needed,” Frisk said. “My role involved a lot of coaching. I planted seeds. When she began to talk about owning a restaurant, I went and toured the culinary arts building at Scott Community College and fed her information about the program. I will always remember Joy because she was so worried to take her first test. I told her she didn’t even have to worry because she already knew everything – then she started crying.”
In the middle of working on her high school equivalency diploma, Jackson needed to have foot surgery. Not wanting another setback, Jackson, who was supposed to be on bedrest, drove herself to the Davenport Center to take her last two tests so she could graduate with her high school equivalency diploma the next day, May 28, 2014.
“I was there in the audience in my cap and gown,” Jackson said. “I waited years to walk across that stage and I was going to do it crutches and all!”
With her high school equivalency diploma in hand, Jackson was ready to follow her dream.
“When I thought about culinary school, I realized that I had a better support system at Scott Community College than I would have in St. Louis,” she said. “The college gives adult learners three free credit hours to get started in college and Bridget told me about the culinary arts apprenticeship program. It made me see that they would all be here to help me out.”
Jackson enrolled in the program where she also worked in the field under a journeyman chef to hone her skills. Her ability to think outside the box even prompted her instructor to ask her to join two other students to cook for then-Gov. Terry Branstad.
“I made lemon curd and wound up making it for the governor’s chef, too,” Jackson said. “She said if I ever needed any references to contact her!”
After 2.5 years of working hard as part of the honors program, Jackson graduated with her AAS Culinary Arts Apprenticeship degree in May 2017 and got to walk across the stage again, her nephew Jhalil Jackson cheering her on the whole way.
“I went from hating school to being a college graduate,” Jackson said. “It showed my nephew that all things are possible. Now he wants to be a chef just like me! He says his name is Chef Lil!”
Jackson still has dreams of owning a food truck, but first she is going back to school for an associate degree in business management to round out her entrepreneurial skills.
“Before I couldn’t get any further without the education,” Jackson said. “And I couldn’t get the jobs I wanted because I didn’t have enough experience. Now I have both and I know my dreams are within reach!”