WILMINGTON, N.C. — Dylan Rhodes went from home-schooled high school student to chef at an exclusive resort only a year after graduating. He took advantage of the dual enrollment program at Cape Fear Community College and began taking classes in culinary arts. He now has his associate's degree at only 18.

“We get about as hands-on as you can get — a teacher can be with you for an hour out of the day,” Rhodes says. “When you tell people wherever you are that you’re just there to learn, everyone wants to teach you whatever they know.”

The program is like others around the state that offers a two-year degree completely free to high school students willing to put in the work. Rhodes saw it as an incredible opportunity to save time and money and make a dream he thought wasn’t possible into a reality.

“I was looking into other culinary schools, and it was about $40,000 a year, and it was a three-year program,” Rhodes says. “So I was looking at a fun bill at the end of that, and I realized that was just not realistic.”

Chef Gwen Gulliksen, the program director for the culinary arts department, tries to make college classes as inexpensive as possible. Still, she knows from personal experience being on financial aid how tough it can be to pay for school.

Especially now, when many families are dealing with economic impacts from the pandemic and college may seem impossible, Gulliksen and Rhodes both encourage students to keep pursuing their passions and looking into little-known programs like this one.

“It’s a great place to be and to set your path, whether that’s with a diploma getting right into the work field or with an associate's degree,” Gulliksen says.

She says 95% of her students leave her classroom and walk straight into a job, and she expects after the pandemic, that will only continue to increase.

And while various colleges around the state have dual enrollment programs, Gulliksen says Cape Fear Community College’s culinary arts program is the first in the nation to take their classes straight to a high school campus.

“Normally, the dual-enrolled kids come to our campus, but last year for the first time, we took our campus to the Sea Tech High School, and they built a kitchen for us, so those students are taking our classes as young as 15,” Gulliksen says.

Gulliksen shares that this is just starting to take off both in Wilmington and around the state, and she’s eager for students of all ages to start taking classes, discover their passions and realize that the career of their dreams is within reach.

“I figured that I would be trying to work to something like that, but to be able to get it so quickly is really cool,” Rhodes says. “It’s mind-blowing. I’m still registering it for sure.”