How a cooking student struggling with depression succeeded in her senior year at NMC

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

“My husband is like, ‘Yeah, I still want help,'” she said.

He needs help with a lot of things: paying his bills, managing his home in Harrietta, and raising two kids – one eight, the other 15.

It’s not that Carrizales didn’t contribute, it’s just that school – with its one-hour drive north – dominated its schedule. There was a time this school year when those 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 so depressed before,” she said. “It was kind of scary.”

The state of Michigan has a goal 60% of its workforce has a trades certificate or university degree by 2030. Programs like Michigan Reconnect and A future for frontliners have improved access to the state’s 28 community colleges, but during the pandemic some students have faced additional barriers to achieving their goals.

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

A history of support, formal and informal

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

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

She was officially diagnosed with depression and anxiety at the age of 30, which led to more consistent support. Carrizales began taking medication and undergoing therapy, which she says improved her relationship at home with her husband and children.

Medication and therapy also helped in 2019, when she enrolled at Northwestern Michigan College to earn her associate’s degree in culinary arts. She was 33 years old.

She maintained a part-time job at a restaurant, but as her academic responsibilities increased, so did her need for financial and emotional support. She credits her culinary instructors for keeping her on track by directing her to NMC’s pantry and counseling center.

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

Carrizales lives in Harrietta, 40 miles south of the NMC campus.

Resources kept her afloat. But last fall, she found herself in trouble 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 commuted an hour or more to 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 got back into bed.

“I made the decision to walk away,” she said. “If I had had a puncture, I would have failed.”

In November, Carrizales requested reimbursement from NMC so that he could take sick leave. It was approved. Her doctor adjusted the dose of her medication. She says that – with the break from school and work – made her feel much better. In January, she re-enrolled.

Back at school, Carrizales continued picking up pasta and preserves from NMC’s pantry. Students can connect to resources like this through the NMC 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 advice.

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

According to a survey by the Michigan Association of Community Colleges86% of students in the state saw their mental health burden increase in 2020. According to a report from the center of hope.

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Sally Smarsty directs NMC’s Student Success Center.

Smarsty says a student recently came to the success center to talk about an exam. He just mentioned sleeping in his car in the Walmart parking lot.

“When things like that come out, we kind of feel like, OK, that’s an indicator for us that there’s something else going on in their lives that’s more important than academics and which could potentially stop their college careers in their tracks,” Smarsty mentioned.

And she says that’s her goal — to provide students with everything they need to graduate or transfer to a four-year college.

Last days in cooking class

During her final week of cooking class, Carrizales completed a four-hour cooking test. One of the hardest parts was preparing the chicken the airline way. Carrizales was a bit skeptical about it.

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

Nonetheless, she said the judges “went back for a few seconds.”

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

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Will Callan

Carrizales has two more general education classes this summer. But on May 7, she walked with her classmates. She is the first in her family to graduate from college.

Les Eckert, who runs the culinary program, says she’s “delighted” to see this happening.

“It makes me really excited and hopeful for people who are really struggling — that they don’t lose sight of what they want,” she said.

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

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