HUNTERTOWN — Brandon Masters never thought he would graduate from high school, let alone go to college or pursue a career he loved. Over the past two years, his outlook on life has changed — for which he credits his favorite teacher and her lessons about life through the world of culinary arts.

“Without culinary, I probably would have dropped out of high school long ago,” Masters, a 2019 Carroll graduate, said. “I’m not really a school person, but I will be the first one to tell you that education is everything in your life.”

Masters describes his high school story as “rise and fall.” During his freshman year at Carroll, he was failing all but one class, and while his grades slightly improved during his sophomore year, he still didn’t take school seriously. It wasn’t until his junior year, when he enrolled in Renee Sigmon’s Culinary I class and became involved in Carroll’s Blu Flame culinary program, that he started to think about his future.

“I honestly thought school was just a joke — I was here for nothing when I could go get onsite experience,” he recalled. “And then junior year it hit me when I was in Mrs. Sigmon’s class and she was telling us how the real world works, and I thought ‘I’m not really getting anywhere and I’m going down pretty fast — I need to shape up.’”

During a visit from state legislators this spring, Masters told elected officials that the culinary program “literally saved my life,” urging them to support funding for career and technical education programs like Carroll’s. Looking back over the past two years, he sticks by that claim.

“This program saved my life indefinitely,” he said. “Without it, I don’t think I would have a solid career path that I liked. I would probably be working a job that I hated, I probably wouldn’t be paid enough and I would probably just dread coming in every day. It taught me more than I ever thought it would. I thought that culinary was just about cooking, but Mrs. Sigmon opened my eyes.”

After getting his wake-up call, Masters started taking online courses through Apex Learning, earning eight credits in one year. Though he hadn’t intended to attend his own graduation ceremony, he anchored the procession of 566 graduates during this year’s commencement — at the request of his culinary teacher.

Masters’ love of cooking started around age 9, and he recalls his grandmother teaching him how to cook eggs at that young age.

“That’s where it kind of started, and my mom liked watching cooking shows and I would watch them with her, so I got into it,” he said.

However, it wasn’t until his junior year that he realized he might want to pursue a career in food services.

“I love the people, I love the stress of the work, cooking, serving people — everything,” he said. “It’s hard work and it’s stressful, but I find that I never feel good unless I come home from a hard day’s work and know that I’ve accomplished something.”

One of his biggest accomplishments in school was making hickory bark ice cream for Carroll’s 2018 Fashion and Culinary Show, for which he even foraged for his own bark at Payton County Park in Huntertown.

“It was a process to figure out how to make it, how to keep the flavor in it and how to make it pop,” he said. “I think it was a little bit ahead of my expertise and I don’t think people really expected that out of someone in my class, but it turned out really well.”

Masters still looks back fondly on his memories of getting through tough projects like the fashion show and going out with his culinary friends afterward to celebrate.

In the past two years, Masters has gone through a lot of changes, he said. The biggest of those changes came through a lesson from Sigmon — you should treat others with kindness, but sometimes you also have to think about yourself.

“I wasn’t doing that — I was in very poor health, mentally and physically, and after she taught us that lesson I figured that out and started going to therapy,” he recalled. “Now with the opportunities I have, it gives me a way to help my family out.”

Masters’ family hasn’t had it easy over the past decade or so. His parents, the owners of Fort Wayne business Tri-State Vacuum, have seen business decline over the years, forcing them to close some of their stores. Due to medical conditions, his mom had to quit working, causing the family’s bills to pile up, Masters said.

The family still owns one store on the corner of Fairfield Avenue and Taylor Street in downtown Fort Wayne, and Masters said “things are looking up.” Most of all, his family is happy he’s found something he wants to do in the future.

“At one point, my family had everything we wanted, and now we’re slowly building it back up,” he said. “We’ve been through personal struggles, financial struggles, but I’m very lucky. I’ve dealt with it and learned from it. I’m ready to move on and get to the next chapter.”

Thanks to Sigmon and his involvement in culinary, Masters said his entire mentality has improved.

“She gave me a better way of looking at people,” he said. “Instead of being the angry, upset person that I was, I’m a little bit more understanding, I do what I have to to get by. It gave me opportunities career-wise and it also gave me life lessons and a little bit of insight, and I’m a better person because of it.”

Masters still isn’t sure what’s in store for him in the future, but one thing he is certain of is that he wants to go to college — a long cry from his days of planning to drop out of school. He had previously planned to accept a chef position on a yacht in Chicago, but because it is only seasonal work, he was concerned about making ends meet in the offseason.

He has looked into the culinary program at Kendall College in Chicago, but he now has hopes of attending the Culinary Institute of Michigan.

“I don’t think I’ll be staying in one place for a very long time,” he said. “I don’t like being stagnant, staying in the same place, doing the same thing. I like to move around and learn as I go.”

Wherever he ends up, he’ll know he got there with the help of his favorite teacher.

“I really appreciate everything Mrs. Sigmon has done for this class,” he said. “She’s the mind behind this program, and without her there would be no culinary program. I don’t think I tell her enough, but I try to show it as much as I can through my actions in the kitchen — I try to clean as much as I can, work as hard as I can. Without her, there would be no future for me.”

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