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February 2019 - featured story
Andrea Thiessen, Business Administration Certificate graduate, Winter 2019
This year might mark the end of my studies, but it also marks an important beginning.
My first job was at the age of 12 as a dishwasher at a family owned and operated restaurant in small-town Manitoba, and began work as a cook within a year. This inspired me to become a professional chef, and after I graduated high school in 2002, I enrolled in the Professional Cook Program at the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology, completing the diploma in 2003. I worked in fine dining restaurants across Canada, in addition to several years as a cook in northern Alberta. I loved cooking.
My passion for food and drive in the industry brought me across Canada, and while I functioned well in the kitchen, I was struggling in many other ways. The first time I experimented with chemical drugs I was 18 years old. Partying on weekends was a regular part of my lifestyle. In 2008, I experienced traumatic events and turned to substances as a means of coping with the pain. It wasn’t long until I was addicted to cocaine and using on a daily basis to get through the day. A year later, I was smoking crack and experimenting with basically whatever I could get my hands on. Drugs were an escape for me from feelings of depression and anxiety, a way to self-medicate and forget my problems. I thought I could escape my addictions by moving to another city, so I left Calgary in 2009 only to realize that addiction follows you anywhere you go.
One night, while homeless and lost in my addictions on the streets of Toronto, I was having a cigarette outside of a hostel. A homeless man approached me, and my immediate reaction was to think he is probably going to ask me for a cigarette or money. But the man walked up to me and gave me a big hug and said, “Take care of yourself sister.”
As he continued on his way along the street, my eyes welled up with tears. I took a long hard look at myself and realized how selfish I had been. I was being stubborn, with too much pride. But I could change. I could ask for help. I could do something to turn my life around. But here I was feeling sorry for myself… I called my mom the next day, and went home.
I have since been sober for three years, and have learned more about myself through my recovery journey than I ever imagined possible. I learn new things about myself every day. I never imagined that I would want to do anything other than cook. I was very passionate for my craft, and once dreamed of having my own restaurant.
Mental health and addiction issues can be prominent in the hospitality industry. Cooks are wired to be ‘tough’, and push through long hours on their feet, often without having a break. It can be easy to develop habits of self-medication when you are in this type of environment, with easy access to alcohol. But people need to take time to take care of themselves. I personally lost sight of this during my career as a cook. Work and my addictions always came first.
But there is a new awareness now across the industry. New movements like Food for Thought out of Edmonton, and many chefs are beginning to openly discuss their own struggles and find better ways for themselves and their staff to cope with stress. To be clear: I do not blame the industry for the choices I made, and not all chefs struggle with addictions. But the culture in kitchens is changing, and this is important for many people’s well-being.
I was struggling physically in the kitchen, with so much pain I had to put ice packs on my legs after every shift. WorkBC recognized my health necessitated a career change, and enabled me with the ability to attend training for a fresh start. During the application process for sponsorship, I had to explore a number of institutions in the area to find the best fit. Although all of the schools I researched were great options, I chose Okanagan College because it is a leading business school with professors who have years of experience in the field for which they teach.
Okanagan College gave me the tools I need to apply myself to a new exciting career in business. The professors are highly knowledgeable, and more importantly, inspiring. Graduating with a Business Administration Certificate, I learned more this past year than I believe I have learned in any single year in my life before. Not just in school, but in life. I am considering coming back in the future to complete the diploma program, or get my Bachelor of Business Administration. But for now, I am just going to enjoy working full time, and taking time to enjoy life and everything ahead for the future.
My future after school looks bright. I have been working as an Executive Assistant to the CEO of a marketing app company, called Maxogram, in Kelowna since July 2018. It is very exciting to be a part of this company, and I am enjoying applying my transferable skills from 20 years as a cook in the hospitality industry to this assistant position. I am looking forward to moving forward in my current position. I have a great mentor, who I learn from every day.
I still love cooking, and always will. I cook a lot at home now for the simple joy of it. I am grateful to all the people in my life who have stood by me through thick and thin: my fiancé Joel, friends, and family – and for all the support I received from professors who I shared my story with during my time at the college.
Now I honestly wouldn’t change a thing. I know I wouldn’t be the same person I am today without having the experiences I have had in my life. I still have bad days, we all have bad days, but I recognize now that I need to focus on the present and leave the past behind.
I want to encourage others that no matter how hopeless life may seem, no matter what struggles you are facing, you have the power to change, and the ability to take the positive from the negative. It is never an easy journey, and at times you may feel like you have lost hope, but have courage because when you start to control your own story, start asking for help and being honest with yourself, there is nothing that you can't accomplish.