When Hannah Moyles graduated as valedictorian of her high school class in 2013, she headed to Duke University, where she planned to focus on neuroscience.
But something didn’t feel quite right for Moyles from the start. She missed being at home, and she questioned her future as a scientist.
Moyles was happiest when she was preparing elaborate meals for friends in the dorm’s small kitchen.
So Moyles left Duke to pursue her true passion: cooking. In January, she enrolled at Wake Tech Community College, where she is studying culinary arts, baking and pastry arts, and hospitality management.
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“I didn’t want to just be all right with my job,” said Moyles, 20. “I wanted to love my job, my career.”
As college students start classes this month, Moyles’ story is a reminder for us all to put our dreams and happiness ahead of traditional expectations. Moyles had the courage to do what so many people only fantasize about.
How many of us want to quit our stable jobs to open a juice bar or become a wilderness guide or run a doggie day care? (OK, that last one is my dream, because I want to play with dogs all day.)
Moyles recognized early on that so many people feel stuck in careers they’re not passionate about, and she didn’t want to become one of them.
She knows some people will think she threw away an amazing opportunity – a chance to earn a degree from an elite university. Only about 11 percent of students who apply to Duke get accepted.
But Moyles is confident she made the right choice.
She said she never earned less than A’s as a kid, and she took about 16 Advanced Placement classes at what was then Wake Forest-Rolesville High School. She didn’t feel a strong sense of competition to graduate at the top of her class, she said, but it sort of seemed inevitable.
“I wanted to do as well as I could,” Moyles said.
One summer in high school, she interned at a genetics lab at N.C. State University. The experience helped her realize she probably didn’t want to spend her life working in a windowless science lab.
Even so, Moyles chose a science track at Duke. (She said she turned down the Park Scholarship at NCSU and never found out if she got accepted to Harvard because she earned early admission to Duke.)
All the while, Moyles said, she watched her peers force themselves to pursue science and math, lured by the promise of lucrative careers and caving to family pressures.
She won a creative writing award her freshman year and changed her major to English, thinking she might want to become a college professor.
Moyles admits she also felt pressure to earn what she considered then “a real degree” – a bachelor’s degree from a four-year university.
“I was really thinking about my future,” she said. “I thought, ‘I’ll have a real degree, but will I be happy?’ ”
Months later, Moyles said she is enjoying her time at Wake Tech, and she thinks community colleges often don’t get the respect they deserve. She figures it will take her three and a half years to earn three associate’s degrees.
Only a handful of students have earned degrees in all three culinary programs at Wake Tech, said Jeff Hadley, chairman of the culinary department.
“I’m still really trying to be an overachiever,” Moyles said.
Does money matter?
In high school, Moyles said, she made dinner for her family about four times a week, whipping up pizzas and pork carnitas in their Wake Forest home. She started trying more complicated dishes like risotto and fresh pasta. She loves making anything Italian.
She also enjoys baking bread and desserts, including spiced rum cakes.
Hadley said he’s seen many students over the years enroll in Wake Tech’s culinary program because they say they’re passionate about cooking. Many of them, he said, don’t last more than a semester because they realize the rigor and stress involved.
He expects Moyles will stick around. She already asked him to help her land an internship with the new Publix grocery store in Wake Forest.
“You gotta be dedicated, definitely,” Hadley said of his students who go on to work in restaurants and bakeries. “The hours are long, people around you are crazy. You’ve got demands on you that most people can’t fathom.”
The money isn’t always great, either.
Moyles could probably earn six figures as a scientist or professor. She’s not sure yet about her dream job in the culinary arts, but she wouldn’t mind owning a bakery, working as a chef on a cruise ship or teaching classes. There are so many possibilities.
Hadley said culinary students generally don’t make much money at first.
“Right out of school, if they’re making 12, 14 bucks an hour, they should be happy,” he said.
Moyles said she considered what her decisions could mean for her financially.
“I have thought about that, and it really doesn’t bother me,” she said. “I’d rather be happy and content in my field than make a lot of money.
“I know that I’m going to be OK no matter what – and I’ll be happy.”
So what do Moyles’ parents think of all this?
Her mother, Stephanie Moyles, acknowledges she pushed her daughter to excel academically. During Hannah’s freshman year of high school, she said, she realized her daughter was at the top of her class.
“My goal was: You’re No. 1, you’re going to stay No. 1,” she said.
Stephanie Moyles said she was thrilled when her daughter got accepted to Duke, but she had a feeling early on that the school wasn’t the right fit.
“I felt like she was always looking for the thing that made her happy,” she said.
She supports her daughter’s decision to pursue culinary arts, and so does her husband, Brian, a CT scan technologist at a local hospital.
Stephanie Moyles can relate to her daughter. She earned a degree in nursing and quickly realized she didn’t want to be a nurse. So she became a stay-at-home mom and taught flute lessons – a life that made her happy.
She said she is grateful Hannah made a change now, instead of after four years at Duke. The family was helping pay the roughly $47,000 annual tuition and fees.
At Wake Tech, Hannah said, her classes cost about $1,000 a semester.
Now that she’s living at home again, Hannah spends a lot of time cooking for her parents – certainly a perk for them.
“When she’s in the kitchen,” Stephanie Moyles said, “that’s her territory.”
I think Hannah will do great things in life, whatever career she chooses. She’s already so far ahead of many young people – not just in terms of smarts and maturity and humility, but also in knowing what really matters.
Sometimes responsibilities stand in the way of making drastic changes that would allow us to pursue our passions. For many, there are children to raise and bills to pay.
So Hannah is lucky, and she knows it.
“I’d say don’t be afraid to question yourself,” she said. “If something doesn’t feel quite right, examine your motives. ... Picture yourself doing what you’re doing now in 20 or 30 years.”