Between her Easy-Bake Oven days and earning a culinary-arts degree came what Jackie Hill calls the "horrible" years.

Now a 55-year-old grandmother, at 28, she was a single mother of five children, living in public housing and cleaning offices to make ends meet.

It was a life Hill walked into after her father died, and she felt adrift. Pregnant at 16, she dropped out of high school. But she never resigned herself to a fate of just getting by.

"I kept thinking about getting my degree," said Hill, of Norristown. "Being a chef was always on my mind."

On Thursday, Hill walked across the stage during graduation ceremonies at Montgomery County Community College in Blue Bell after securing what in her view was 39 years in the making: an associate degree in culinary arts.

The moment Hill gripped her diploma case, she became the first in a family of 10 children to earn a college degree.

"We're so proud of her," said Hill's sister, Daisy Powell, 61. And although Powell is older, "I call her my 'big sister.' "

In the time since Hill entered the college in 2008, she has been on the dean's list six times, become a member of the Phi Theta Kappa honor society, and joined the advisory board of the college's Culinary Arts Institute. She graduated summa cum laude.

"I have watched Jackie grow from being very tentative as an adult returning to school to a whole different level of poise and grace," said Karen Stout, president of the school.

Hill's story is like that of many other adult women, Stout said. They are women "needing to find themselves," and build confidence, Stout said.

For Hill, self-esteem wasn't always an issue. When she was a youngster, her dad, a preacher, was her biggest booster. He gave her an Easy-Bake Oven and promised that one day he would set her up in business.

When he died, Hill began "acting out." She ran away from home, wound up pregnant, and delivered the first of five children.

Hill made a living cleaning, working as a prison guard and at a wholesale membership club. At 30, she embarked on the first of two marriages, both of which ended badly. Her first husband died; the second turned out to be a bigamist.

"When I found out [about the second husband]," Hill said, "I packed my stuff and left."

All the while, Hill built a reputation as a fierce home cook, baking for family, friends, and her church.

"She was the sibling in our family who always held the dinners to keep the family together," said Tangie Avery, Hill's daughter. "She cooked on holidays, and everyone would come over and she would never ask anybody to bring anything."

Hill began following the careers of celebrity chefs such as Gordon Ramsay and Gale Gand.

It was the election of President Obama that inspired her to go back to school.

"If a black man could be president of the United States, I could get my diploma," Hill said.

Hill began taking courses at the Center for Literacy in West Philadelphia and earned her high school diploma.

When she began her classes at MCCC, it wasn't easy. She took advantage of the school's tutoring and support programs and worked hard.

"If her class started at 8 a.m., she would get up at 5 a.m., get there early, and wait in the parking lot and study," Avery said.

Through her classes, Hill expanded her culinary repertoire to include global cuisine, and experimented on family and friends.

"I love it when she brings her lessons to church," said the Rev. Dr. Clayton Furlow, pastor of Philippian Baptist Church in Philadelphia, Hill's congregation.

With her degree in sight, Hill hasn't been able to stop crying.

She cried when she picked up her cap and gown. She cried when she picked up her tickets. She cried on the afternoon of graduation with financial-aid counselor Denise Nuccio, who had helped her find funds for tuition.

"I registered for four classes with no money. She made it happen," Hill said of Nuccio.

Hill is now working as a chef at a nursing home where she cooks for the staff. She hopes to work at an instructor's planned barbecue restaurant and plans to continue her education so that she can one day return to MCCC to teach.

Hill says she's finally found her place. It's where "people come together to eat, talk, and eat some more."

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