Cooking up a future

October 10, 2022

The hustle and bustle of a kitchen isn’t for everyone. 

Never ending prep-work in the early morning, working in a hot environment, and serving hundreds of people isn’t easy work, and it takes passion to do it over the summer. 

Charleston County School District offers various internship opportunities in different departments for rising seniors. Nicholas Coakley, a senior in the Wando Culinary Arts Program, spent his summer in various cafeterias and offices working with the district to provide food and nutrition services. After the USDA guidelines eliminated free lunches for all students, Coakley and his team planned events for families to get information and a jumpstart on the free and reduced lunch application and program. 

At these events, they were able to give boxes of food to families with the help of other groups like the LowCountry Food Bank and Culinary Arts. Boxes of food for families included canned goods and recipes, but these events also offered job interviews and applications for nutrition service jobs in the district. 

“The stuff that we do in culinary, like learning how to cook properly certain food elements like chicken, that plays a part in when I was going in the cafeteria preparing meals. I know how to properly cook things that don’t make people sick,” Coakley said. 

Coakley was able to use skills that he learned in the classroom over the summer, gaining practical experience on how to prepare meals for larger groups. In class, Coakley learned how to work in a professional kitchen, sharpening organizational and cleaning skills. Keeping the workplace clean and organized helps him be time efficient once starting the whole process of cooking. 

Suzanne Cottingham works in nutritional services for Charleston County School District, helping over 90 schools throughout the year. She was the supervisor during this internship, and she saw firsthand the impact that these events had on the students and community. 

“We have families, parents that we are trying to recruit. It’s giving them a salary, establishing them with some job skills, while they are able to walk to work, especially with gas prices increasing and some people who don’t have transportation, it gives them an opportunity to establish a career within nutrition services,” Cottingham said. 

Food and reduced lunch events aren’t the only things that comprised this internship. Interns were able to obtain their Serve Safe certification, got experience serving over 200 kids at various summer camps like SMART camp, and were able to see some of the behind the scenes work of nutrition services. Interns were able to explore different parts of the job, from marketing and promotional events, to simply working in the kitchen and learning the technical side of nutrition services, and even to learning how to order supplies and business management skills.

“I’m a culinary major, I love cooking… It’s just knowing that it all lives in the kitchen. I work really hard in the kitchen and then I’m able to enjoy it, and it come out how I want it to come out, it’s really rewarding,” Coakley said. 

Coakley hopes to bring back kiosks and a variety of foods back into the Wando cafeteria. While still following nutritional guidelines for what is allowed in school lunches, ideas of refrigerated vending machines, make-your-own salad stations, and a dessert bar are being considered. For the future, he hopes to own a restaurant and be a business owner, and his summer internship has only made him more sure of what he wants. 

Traysea Smith, a counselor at the East Cooper Center for Advanced Studies, often helps match students to various internships throughout the Lowcountry. Internships allow for students to explore a career cluster that they may be interested in. After taking classes or a certain program, an internship gives them a chance to get career experience and helps them know more about their passions or interests. 

“It allows students to learn more about a chosen career path through hands-on learning. It allows them to apply what they may have learned in the classroom to work site experiences or field related experiences, learning hands on that way. They apply those lessons to the workplace,” Smith said. 

Completing an internship while still in high school may help a student decide if a chosen career path is the right fit for them. Wando and ECCAS counselors have a range of positions available for students, including sports medicine, culinary and nutrition services, construction, and more. More importantly, internships help build connections within the community. 

“You meet people, you meet other kids, other schools all over Charleston County. It was really cool to just connect with other students from other schools that you don’t usually go to school with,” Coakley said. “You build bonds with people, and I still talk to the people I worked with to this day.”

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