Sam Rodgers is no stranger to taking care of himself.

He grew up in foster care and scrapped to make something out of his middle school years.

“I bounced around from shelter to shelter, stayed on the street a little bit,” said Rodgers, 34, of Jackson. “I tried to do my best in school, but I had to quit to take care of myself.”

Sam Rodgers, a student in the MI-BEST program at Hinds Community College, is taking culinary classes and recently landed a job at Hal & Mal's in Jackson. (April Garon/Hinds Community College)
Sam Rodgers, a student in the MI-BEST program at Hinds Community College, is taking culinary classes and recently landed a job at Hal & Mal’s in Jackson. (April Garon/Hinds Community College)

He worked in fast food, then as a construction worker for 14 years where he made decent money. “I did everything you can possibly think of in the construction business.” But that job went away, and the lack of a high school diploma and skills beyond the work yard threatened to put him back in dire straits.

“I thought, ‘Well, Sam, you’re back where you started,’ ” he said.

He looked into the comprehensive adult education program at Hinds Community College, and, unlike past ups and downs in life, it’s been all the help he’s needed.

“My fiancé and New Horizons Church told me about an event for MI-BEST at the medical mall in Jackson,” Rodgers said. “They said it would help you get finish school and get a GED.”

MI-BEST is Mississippi’s version of the nationally recognized Integrating Basic Education and Skills Training program, or I-BEST. It allows adult students to train for a job skill while earning their GED high school equivalency certificate at the same time.

Students are prepared to be job-ready in six months to a year, train in high-demand areas and earn national certifications.

The structure means having teachers for both academics and career-tech skills in the classroom simultaneously for about 25 to 50 percent of the time, said Dr. Robin Parker, district director of Integrated Pathways at Hinds.

“We have to modify our instruction and do something different in the classroom in order to help our students be successful,” Parker said. “One teacher is an academic teacher helping students prepare for their GED and career readiness certificate, and then another is a career skills instructor who helps prepare them for nationally-recognized industry certificates.

“So, our students are leaving with college credit and their GED, and a portfolio of credentials industry has endorsed.”

Industries have recruited students to the program, which Parker ensures interviews for jobs that can pay double-digit hourly wages right away.

Program staff called navigators help students find solutions with things such as transportation, child care and financial aid.

“Navigators see program students daily,” Parker said. “They work with our community partners to remove any kind of barrier that prevents the student from focusing on their classroom instruction.”

Rodgers’ experience in the working world got him through the necessary career-readiness and other qualifying tests. His entry onto a college campus for the first time in November keeps “blowing him away,” he said.

Rodgers will be trading his hard hat for a chef hat when he enters Hinds’ Culinary Arts Technology program in January. He wants to take the skills and expertise he’ll learn in the kitchen and bring it back to the inner city, where he says fine dining experiences are rare.

“I want to start my own business and have it where it’s white tablecloths and beautiful scenery,” Rodgers said. “It’ll give people something different besides fast-food restaurants.”

His here-and-now is looking good, too. Rodgers recently landed a job at Jackson’s Hal and Mal’s as an entry-level chef.

“Food is just awesome, always been a passion and one of my dreams,” he said. “You can be in a bad mood, but then eat a delicious dinner and it just changes your whole attitude.”

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