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How a culinary student struggling with depression made it through her final year at NMC

Caption: Michelle Carrizales has been pursuing her associate’s degree in culinary arts at Northwestern Michigan College since 2019.
Will Callan
Caption: Michelle Carrizales has been pursuing her associate’s degree in culinary arts at Northwestern Michigan College since 2019.

Michelle Carrizales is in the kitchen washing dishes. It’s her last week of culinary school at Northwestern Michigan College in Traverse City. She’ll soon be going back to work full-time, and at least one member of her family is ready for it.

“My husband’s like, ‘Yeah, I want help again,’” she said.

There’s a lot he needs help with: paying bills, running their house in Harrietta and raising two kids – one eight, the other 15.

It’s not that Carrizales hasn’t been contributing, just that school – with its hour-long commute north – has dominated her schedule. There was a moment this school year when these responsibilities became too much to bear, and Carrizales thought she might not graduate.

“The depression had taken over to a point where I had never felt that low before,” she said. “It was kind of scary.”

The state of Michigan has a goal for 60% of its workforce to have a skill certificate or college degree by 2030. Programs like Michigan Reconnect and Futures for Frontliners have improved access to the state’s 28 community colleges, but during the pandemic, some students have faced additional barriers to meeting their goals.

For Carrizales, one of those barriers was a struggle to maintain her emotional health.

A history of support, formal and informal

Carrizales has felt the symptoms of depression and anxiety since she was a girl, but without a diagnosis, she had to seek out her own forms of therapy — like going to heavy metal concerts and getting tattoos.

“All the pain that I might be having bottled up, that I can’t release, or I don’t know how to release … getting a tattoo helps just kinda let it all go,” she said.

She was officially diagnosed with depression and anxiety when she was 30, and that led to more consistent support. Carrizales started taking medication and going to therapy, which she says improved her relationships at home with her husband and kids.

The meds and therapy also helped in 2019, when she enrolled at Northwestern Michigan College to get her associate’s degree in culinary arts. She was 33.

She kept a part-time restaurant job, but as her academic responsibilities mounted, so did her need for both financial and emotional support. She credits her culinary instructors with keeping her on track by pointing her toward NMC’s food pantry and counseling center.

“I didn’t really know how much support that the college actually gave until my instructors introduced it to me,” she said.

Carrizales lives in Harrietta, 40 miles south of NMC’s campus.
Will Callan
Carrizales lives in Harrietta, 40 miles south of NMC’s campus.

The resources kept her afloat. But last fall, she found herself struggling again.

She had stopped going to the counseling center when the sessions went online at the start of the pandemic. Six days a week, she was commuting an hour or more for school and work. Her teenage daughter was also dealing with her own anxiety and depression.

Carrizales stopped working and started missing classes. After making sure her kids got on the school bus, she would get back in bed.

“I made the decision to just walk away,” she said. “If I would have gotten a flat tire, I would have failed.”

In November, Carrizales applied for a refund from NMC so she could take medical leave. It was approved. Her doctor adjusted the dose on her medication. She says that – along with the break from school and work – made her feel a lot better. In January, she re-enrolled.

Back in school, Carrizales continued picking up pasta and canned goods from NMC’s food pantry. Students can get connected to resources like that through NMC’s Student Success Center.

Keeping students on track

The center offers academic support, but it also serves as a hub for other resources on campus and in the Traverse City community. Sally Smarsty, who runs the center, says while some students might just need help studying for a test, others might need gas money or counseling.

“Do the students have a network? Do they have that safety net who can help catch them when they’re feeling like they’re falling?” Smarsty said. “We can really help provide some of that.”

According to a survey from the Michigan Community College Association, 86% of students in the state saw their mental health burden increase in 2020. Fifty-two percent of community college students surveyed in the U.S. faced housing insecurity, according to a report from the Hope Center.

Sally Smarsty runs NMC’s student success center.
Will Callan
Sally Smarsty runs NMC’s student success center.

Smarsty says a student recently came into the success center to talk about an exam. He just happened to mention that he was sleeping in his car in the Walmart parking lot.

“When things like that come out, we sort of feel like, OK, that is an indicator to us that there is something else that’s happening in their lives that’s more important than academics that could potentially stop their academic career in its tracks,” Smarsty said.

And she says that’s her goal – to get students whatever they need to graduate or transfer to a four-year college.

Final days in the kitchen-classroom 

In her last week of culinary classes, Carrizales completed a four-hour cooking test. One of the more difficult portions was preparing the chicken in the airline style. Carrizales was a bit skeptical of that.

“You see it at fancy restaurants,” she said. “I’ve never seen it before.”

Nevertheless, she said the judges “came back for seconds.”

View from the entrance to NMC’s Great Lakes Culinary Institute.
Will Callan

Carrizales has two general education classes left this summer. But on May 7, she walked with her graduating classmates. She’s the first in her family to get a college degree.

Les Eckert, who directs the culinary program, says she’s “ecstatic” to see that happen.

“It makes me really excited and full of hope for people who really struggle – that they don’t lose sight of what they want,” she said.

Carrizales has a job lined up at Black Star Farms in Suttons Bay. To celebrate her degree, she plans to treat herself to another tattoo, something involving a skull and a chef’s knife.

Will Callan is a freelance reporter based in Ann Arbor, Michigan.