Student story: Reconnecting with a childhood dream

By Beth McKenna

For Shamarri Key, cooking is love.

“I can vividly remember cooking with my family, all of us laughing and joking together,” said Key, a 27-year-old enrolled in Grand Rapids Community College’s (GRCC’s) culinary arts program. “I felt the overall presence of passion and perseverance that gave me the enthusiasm to thrive for a bigger purpose.”

Thanks to GRCC’s award-winning Secchia Institute for Culinary Education, plenty of hard work, and financial aid from Michigan Reconnect, Key is bringing his childhood dream to life.

The Grand Rapids native enrolled at GRCC after graduating in 2013 from Creston High School. While attending GRCC for two years, Key balanced two part-time jobs, carried nine credit hours, coached track at Ottawa Hills High School, and volunteered as a mentor for the DECA program at Innovation Central High School.

Eventually it became overwhelming, and Key decided to put his education on hold to establish himself in the workforce as an adult. But after five years, Key felt he wasn’t getting the most out of life that he could.

“My twin, Jamarri, had graduated from GRCC with his associate degree in science, and my mom graduated from GRCC; she has degrees in art and nursing. I said, ‘Hey, I need a degree, too. I can’t be left behind,’” he said.

He returned to GRCC in August 2021, successfully repaying a balance from his first time at school using the college’s debt forgiveness program.

But Key still had a hill to climb: Despite taking out a student loan in early 2022 to continue his academic career, he was still short on tuition and uncertain where to turn.

“Then I was in Student Life one day talking with the director, Lina Blair, and she told me about Michigan Reconnect,” Key said.

Michigan Reconnect is a state program that covers the cost of in-district tuition for Michiganders 25 or older without a college degree. This program provides eligible students with access to pursue an associate degree or occupational certificate at their local community college.

“The Reconnect program is a door-opener for people who have that financial barrier in front of them and think they don’t want to go to school if they have to pay it all themselves,” said Key, who qualified for the program in April 2022.

With tuition covered by Reconnect and the help of his GRCC mentor, Andre Fields, Key decided to pursue a degree in the culinary arts.

“The fondest and happiest moments in my life revolved around family dinners and cooking sessions as a child with my mother and grandmother,” he said. “The memory of my grandma making Southern spicy fried corn and letting me taste it … that’s what really brought me back to college — and the culinary arts,” he said.

Now Key, who works part-time in GRCC’s student records office, is taking a smaller class load so he doesn’t get overwhelmed. And he loves his culinary arts classes — especially baking.

“It’s fast, it’s exciting, it’s a lot of different information,” he said. “But it makes you want to thrive because the program and the people are all so passionate.”

Once he earns his degree, Key has plans to become a personal chef, own a food truck, cater, teach cooking, and create cooking video tutorials.

Key hopes other students find their passion and follow their dream.

“Don’t let anything or anyone hold you back,” he said.

This article originally appeared here.

Beth McKenna

is a writer for Grand Rapids Community College, located in Grand Rapids, Michigan.