Career and Technical Education (CTE) pathways are bridging the gap between education and career readiness in high schools across the country. Whether students plan on going to college or straight into careers, these pathways connect what students learn with what they can earn, and are tied to near 100% graduation rates, increased likelihood to pursue some college coursework, higher salaries, and greater likelihood of achieving economic self-sufficiency.
While there’s plenty of data to support CTE pathways, the proof can also be found in the personal stories of students who took advantage of these pathways and blazed their own trails to the future.
One such example can be found at Gadsden High School, which has developed an amazing recipe for the success of students in its culinary program, thanks to a teacher who can show them the way, because he has already traveled it himself.
Chef Sapien, as he’s known today, grew up in Mesquite, NM, one of four children born to parents who ran an agriculture trucking business. Sharing a love of cooking instilled by his great grandmother, he followed his “passion for making food and making people happy,” into taking an elective class at Gadsden High School in culinary arts.
“I fell in love with the class,” he said, and followed his passion through the program, earning a ProStart career certification and an internship at nearby event venue Grace Gardens.
“I worked at first as a dishwasher, but within a few months, had quickly worked my way to morning prep and an assistant sous chef,” he said. During that time, I learned how to interact with prospective clients, cater to their needs for their dream wedding. I was also tasked with the responsibility of interviewing, hiring, training, scheduling and discipline with all kitchen employees. Chef Scott Wakitsch, my mentor at the time, believed that the earlier you learn to break barriers and fears, nothing is too big to accomplish. “Success depends on how bad you crave it” At 18 years old, I took that to heart, body, mind and soul and ran with it.
After successfully balancing his work and schooling, he graduated from Gadsden and earned the Regents Scholarship from NMSU. Along with a New Mexico Lottery Scholarship, Pell grant, and two other scholarships. He earned a full ride and additional money to invest in other essentials he needed.
“I entered college determined and motivated to graduate,” he said.
He stayed on a Grace Gardens, until he entered a training program at the new Jason’s Deli in Las Cruces. He helped get the store up and running, working more than 50 hours a week while still staying on top of his college coursework in NMSU’s Hotel, Tourism and Restaurant Management program.
Within the first few months, Anthony rose in responsibility, becoming a supervisor during his first year. He entered the restaurant chain’s manager training program, all while holding down 21 hours of college coursework.
“For two months, I had 90 hours of work and school every week. But I was earning a base salary of $30,000 while I was in school, and $33,000 after I finished the training program. Within four years, I was making a salary of $42,000, along with merit and performance-based raises, and I was only 21 years old. I bought a 2014 Chevy Malibu with no parent assistance. It was the greatest moment in my life.”
He explained, “Sheri Anderson-Guzman, my old culinary teacher, let me know about an opportunity to teach the culinary program at Gadsden High School. Teaching is very different from the business world. I was challenged and tasked with learning how to shift my mindset from making a profit in a restaurant to shaping and molding the minds of the future. I knew I could share with them real life experiences of what happens in this industry. Because I had spent so much time working with hiring and firing employees, I knew I could help them gain needed soft skills and help get them where they want to go.”
Chef Sapien now works with 80 students, 10th-12th grades, at his alma mater. Things are different in the culinary program now, thanks to a newly updated commercial training kitchen.
Students here learn everything from planning menus, making meals for the faculty, providing good customer service, and even how to handle catering orders. He works with his students in earning their certifications and then helping them create resumes, fill out applications, and get the jobs they want. He has them research where they may want to go to college and write a paper explaining why they chose that school. He also brings in guest speakers who have careers in hotels, resorts and other venues in the hospitality industry.
“I can let them know what employers will expect from them. I can give them those tools now,” he said. “I want them to make their mistakes with me, then we can fix them before they go on to the real world, whether they want to stay here or leave New Mexico.”
He also prepares students for the annual ProStart competition in Albuquerque. Held each year, students develop a proposal for a unique restaurant concept and present it to industry judges. Problem solving skills are tested as they address challenges faced by managers daily. The culinary competition highlights each team’s creative abilities through the preparation of a three-course meal in 60 minutes, using only two butane burners, and without access to running water or electricity. Students are evaluated on taste, skill, teamwork, safety and sanitation. Students can get scholarships for placing first, second, or third. And for students who go on to compete nationally, the first-place winners receive $15,000 scholarships. Students who finish in the top five can earn scholarships to the culinary schools of their choosing.
Chef Sapien said, “I love this job, because I came from here, and I can relate to my students’ daily lives. They see that I made it, and so can they. But I am here to learn from my students, as well.