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Woman's culinary arts degree was 39 years in the making

| Sunday, May 26, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

Between her Easy-Bake Oven days and earning a culinary arts degree were what Jackie Hill calls the “horrible” years.

Now a 55-year-old grandmother, at 28 she was a single mother of five children, living in public housing and cleaning offices to make ends meet.

It was a life Hill walked into when her father died, and she felt adrift. Pregnant at 16, she dropped out of high school. But she never resigned herself to a fate of just getting by.

“I kept thinking about getting my degree,” said Hill of Norristown. “Being a chef was always on my mind.”

On Thursday, Hill walked across the stage during graduation ceremonies at Montgomery County Community College in Blue Bell after securing what in her view was 39 years in the making: an associate degree in culinary arts.

The moment Hill gripped her diploma case, she became the first in a family of 10 children to earn a college degree.

“We're so proud of her,” said Hill's sister, Daisy Powell, 61. And although Powell is older, “I call her my ‘big sister.' ”

In the time since Hill entered the college in 2008, she has been on the Dean's List six times, become a member of the Phi Theta Kappa honor society, and joined the advisory board of the college's Culinary Arts Institute. She graduated summa cum laude.

“I have watched Jackie grow from being very tentative as an adult returning to school to a whole different level of poise and grace,” said Karen Stout, president of the school.

For Hill, self-esteem wasn't always an issue. When she was a youngster, her dad, a preacher, was her biggest booster. He gave her an Easy-Bake Oven and promised that one day he would set her up in business.

When he died, Hill began “acting out.” She ran away from home, wound up pregnant, and delivered the first of five children.

Hill made a living cleaning, working as a prison guard and at a wholesale membership club. At 30, she embarked on the first of two marriages, both of which ended badly.

The election of President Obama inspired her to go back to school.

“If a black man could be president of the United States, I could get my diploma,” Hill said.

Hill began taking courses at the Center for Literacy in West Philadelphia and earned her high school diploma.

When she began her classes at MCCC, it wasn't easy.

She took advantage of the school's tutoring and support programs and worked hard.

Through her classes, Hill expanded her culinary repertoire to include global cuisine, and experimented on family and friends.

“I love it when she brings her lessons to church,” said the Rev. Dr. Clayton Furlow, pastor of Philippian Baptist Church in Philadelphia, Hill's congregation.

Hill is working as a chef at a nursing home where she cooks for the staff. She hopes to work at an instructor's planned barbecue restaurant and plans to continue her education so that she can one day return to MCCC to teach.

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