After 39 years of setbacks and determination, Jackie Hill’s (pictured above right) dream of becoming a chef came true on Thursday when she graduated summa cum laude from Montgomery County Community College (MCCC) with an associate’s degree in culinary arts, reports Philly.com.
With that amazing achievement, the 55 year-old Philadelphia mother and grandmother became the first in her family of ten to receive a degree.
“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 who spoke to Philly.com. “Hill’s story is like that of many other adult women,” Stout continues. “They are women needing to find themselves and build confidence.”
Hill has endured such crushing hardship over the decades that if her life were a movie, not one soul would budge from their seats.
Growing up, Hill was daddy’s little girl and her father, a preacher, was her entire world. He was her cheering squad and made her feel that she could do anything. It was her father who bought her first Easy-Bake Oven and a chef was born. She fed her dad exquisite edible concoctions with that little oven and he promised to set her up in business one day.
Tragically, that was not to be.
Hill’s world spiraled out of control quickly when her father passed away. The 16-year-old teen, stricken with grief, began “acting out.” She dropped out of high school, ran away from home, and then wound up pregnant. Four more children would soon follow.
Trying to eke out a living with five children while residing in an impoverished Philadelphia housing project was no easy feat for Hill. She held jobs as a security guard at a wholesale membership club, and cleaning offices. When she turned 30, she met her first husband but, a few years later, he passed away. Hill eventually remarried, but it ended when she discovered that her second husband already had a wife and family.
Even though life has thrown Hill some curve-balls, she never lost her desire to become a chef. She cultivated her love of cooking by providing meals and desserts for family, friends and church functions and quickly gained the reputation for being a master in the kitchen.
“She was the sibling in our family who always held the dinners to keep the family together,” Tangie Avery, Hill’s daughter told Philly.com. “She cooked on holidays, and everyone would come over and she would never ask anybody to bring anything.”
Hill also never missed the famous and extremely ornery chef Gordon Ramsay’s popular television show, “Hell’s Kitchen,” where he’d viciously belittle his culinary show’s contestants. She also lived for pastry chef Gale Gand’s show “Sweet Dreams.”
Despite watching her favorite chefs on TV whip up their magic, what really gave Hill the kick in the pants she needed to actually go back to school to make things happen for her, was when President Barack Obama was elected president of the United States in 2008. “If a Black man could be president of the United States, I [knew I]could get my diploma,” Hill told Philly.com.
Since Hill enrolled at MCCC 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.
Going through the entire graduation process has been a surreal experience that has emotionally debilitated Hill. The overwhelmed graduate cried when she picked up her cap and gown. She boo-hooed when she picked up her tickets. She bawled on the afternoon of the graduation with financial-aid counselor Denise Nuccio (pictured above left), who had helped her find funds for tuition.
“I registered for four classes with no money. She made it happen,” Hill said of Nuccio.
Now the associate’s degree in culinary arts recipient has set her sights on going even further academically, so that she could one day return to MCCC to teach.
Keep on reaching Jackie! Congratulations!