By Amelia Levin
While many colleges and universities offer the federal work-study program, College of the Ozarks, Point Lookout, Missouri, has built its 100-plus-year history and entire educational mission around its own work program, helping countless students in all departments – including the culinary arts – graduate debt-free or close to debt-free.
Through the program, full-time students taking 12 or more hours per semester put in an additional 15 hours of work, as well as two 40-hour work weeks when classes are not in session to cover the entire cost of tuition, and in some cases, the cost of some room and board with additional work, scholarships and/or grants. Students can apply to work at one of more than 80 different stations across campus.
For Culinary Arts and Hotel and Restaurant Management bachelor program students, those stations typically include a bakery, 15-room lodge and the Dobyns Dining Room, a 275-seat, award-winning, full-service restaurant open to the public at The Keeter Center as well as the Pearl Rogers Dining Center, where student workers cover all phases of food prep and the serving of daily and catered meals.
“The reason why I feel our program is so successful is because I’m the lead instructor for culinary arts and hotel management classes, but I also am the executive chef at The Keeter Center, so the students I have in my classroom and working with me in the kitchens and dining room are the same,” says Chef Robert Stricklin, chef-instructor. “They’re not hearing two different stories. What we teach in the classroom is what we practice in the hands-on lab.”
Stricklin’s known to allow his students the freedom to express their creativity in the kitchen, while providing invaluable feedback and lessons they can take with them throughout their career and adult lives. At the Dobyns Dining Room, College of the Ozarks currently has 110 students working in the kitchen and 120 students in front of the house roles in the dining room; some of those students come from other departments outside of the culinary and hotel management schools.
College of the Ozarks also has its own creamery, gristmill, USDA animal processing plant, and on-campus farm where students, including those in the agriculture program, can work and earn invaluable, farm-to-table experience.
“From June until October we grow 10,000 pounds of vegetables, all of which we use in our restaurants and menus,” says Stricklin. “We don’t require that our students work in the farm, but if that’s of interest to them they can do so. Even still, we’re often going to the garden as a class to help out and we have our own farmer’s market on campus where many of the culinary arts students conduct demos using the crops available.”
Students also learn how to break down and butcher animals from the on-site processing plant. “We cure our own hams, make our own sausage and have a smoker that we teach the students how to use,” Stricklin says.
Perhaps the greatest asset students have from the work education program, beyond the lack of heavy debt once they graduate, is the leg up on real-world experience compared to other culinary school grads.
“Often when culinary students graduate they can struggle to get jobs because they have less experience, but our students have already had four years’ experience,” says Stricklin.
“Many of our students go straight into junior sous chef and junior restaurant manager roles. They’re being hired at higher levels right away.”
Passion for the students and the advancement of their career continues to drive Stricklin, year-after-year. “I’m a chef at heart and have been in this industry close to 40 years,” he says. “For me, this is the most exciting job I’ve ever had, and for the students, they’re learning firsthand how to grill a salmon for real diners paying money, or they’re able to see a tomato being grown from a seed to a fruit in the greenhouse until it becomes a tomato in the garden, all the way until it’s prepared, plated and consumed by the guest.”
Now that’s real-world, farm-to-table teaching.
Amelia Levin is a Chicago-based freelance writer, cookbook author, former magazine editor and certified chef who writes about food, foodservice and the restaurant industry. Her work has appeared in a variety of magazines and newspapers, as well as online. She started her career in journalism as a hard news reporter for the Chicago Tribune covering police, fire, courts and City Hall, and she served for five years as the senior editor for the former Reed Business Information’s food and hospitality group of magazines (Restaurants & Institutions, Foodservice Equipment & Supplies, Chain Leader and HOTELS).