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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, October 31, 2002

Kitchen stirs desire to succeed

By Eloise Aguiar
Advertiser Windward O'ahu Writer

KANE'OHE — Kids who couldn't make the grade in public high school are proving that they can succeed in the kitchen at Windward Community College under harsher learning conditions and with the right motivation.

Arnel Calumag, 18, arranges salads in the cafeteria at Windward Community College as a member of the school's culinary program.

Bruce Asato • The Honolulu Advertiser

But the goal isn't to make these students into chefs under the University of Hawai'i Employment Training Center's culinary program, although many have chosen that path. ETC's mission for all of its training programs is to instill skills and values that lead to success.

"The food service is just the means," said Ryan Perreira, program counselor. "The lesson is a life lesson to set goals, accomplish goals and be successful in life."

Various agencies contract with ETC to train students, including the state Department of Education, but others can apply for the training.

The students, who train at WCC and operate the cafeteria there, will have a chance to showcase their abilities after a 10:30 a.m. public blessing tomorrow at the college's new $13.8 million campus center, the site of their classroom. They'll be serving poi stew and rice for lunch after the ceremony.

The 40,000-square-foot center, Hale 'Akoakoa, includes the campus' first full-service cafeteria, which opened this summer when the culinary program moved from Kapi'olani Community College. The cafeteria is open to the public and serves breakfast, lunch and grab-and-go snacks from 7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. weekdays.

Windward Community College Provost Angela Meixell, who once served as state director of ETC, offered the facility to the program as a teaching cafeteria rather than having it commercially operated.

"I was familiar with the (ETC) program," Meixell said. "I knew what I wanted. For (the cafeteria) to be a teaching program just made sense."

This is the first time the program has had its own kitchen, having shared facilities at Kapi'olani and Leeward community colleges.

The center also has community meeting rooms, a bookstore, student services, offices for student organizations and a lounge and game room.

Unlike the college students that surround them, most of the culinary students arrived at the campus with failing grades, surly attitudes and personal problems that contributed to their inability or lack of interest in traditional learning.

Some of these at-risk students haven't been to school in two years, but they're motivated because they want to graduate with their class and this alternative program offers that opportunity. They'll earn one credit for every 120 hours on the job or in the classroom.

It isn't easy. They start at 6 a.m. They wear a uniform, must be well-groomed and must comply with rules that are strictly enforced. For every infraction students are docked hours. Five absences and they are terminated.

"It's fair," said culinary student Arnel Calumag, 18. "If they do nothing about it, we would keep on doing our mistakes."

At the end of November, after five months of training, Calumag and his classmates will pursue other goals including returning to high school, college and a career in food service. They'll have earned a certificate that states their proficiency level and attests that they have earned enough credits to catch up with their class.

They'll be able to get a job in food service with all of the basic skills they've acquired, said David Calvan, chef instructor in the culinary program. ETC graduates have gone on to work at such places as Alan Wong's and the Waialae Country Club, Calvan said.

More importantly, the students have learned something about themselves and their ability, he said. They enter the program with some resistance. They can't take constructive criticism and they're overwhelmed by the rules and the lectures. But once they're in the kitchen their attitudes begin to change, Calvan said.

"We show them they can accomplish something positive," he said. "It gives them pride when they take responsibility for their actions."

Femari Villanueva, 17, said she was one of the students who didn't want to be there. The course work was tough and students were under a lot of pressure. The first month was miserable, Villanueva said.

The first talk by chef Diane Nazarro, who heads the program, made Villanueva want to quit.

Nazarro said the kids do tend to jump when she speaks. Her rules are absolute, mostly to guard against accidents in the kitchen, she said, but so is her dedication to the students, whom she respects.

"I don't see them as failures," Nazarro said. "There's something in these individuals and I gotta be the one to bring it out and let them see it."

Students aren't forced to stay. In the past 40 percent to 70 percent have dropped out of the program. In this class of 20 students, 14 have stuck with it.

Villanueva said she's glad she stayed despite the strict rules and long hours with no pay.

"I do it for the love of the art," she said.