Success times two: HFC alumna’s career pivot takes her back to dream of becoming a nurse
When she first enrolled in HFC (then Henry Ford Community College) nearly 20 years ago, Tara Abdusshakur had a dream of becoming a nurse.
The program was structured and rigorous, but she was determined. Then life threw her a curve ball.
“I was in the nursing program and working full-time. I was going through a divorce and raising three small kids. As it turned out, there was no way I could make it work,” said Abdusshakur (pronounced “Abdu-Shakur.” She joked that her surname is a combination of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Tupac Shakur).
Rather than drop out of college, Abdusshakur pivoted instead and changed her major to culinary arts. The program offered a more flexible schedule than nursing. Plus, she already had an affinity for it.
“I grew up in the kitchen, cooking with my grandma,” she said. “Several members of my family own restaurants. So it made sense for me to work in the hospitality industry. It’s a very inclusive industry,” she explained. “Many people work in the field – students, teachers during the summer, retirees who want to work part-time. You’re always talking to people, making connections, and feeding them.”
Keeping a very important promise
Abdusshakur earned her associate degree in culinary arts in 2007, and it allowed her to start what turned into a fabulously successful culinary career. She served for 18 years as the executive chef at the Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation. She opened several restaurants, including Brew Detroit, Mitchell’s Fish Market in Livonia, the Jolly Pumpkin Restaurant and Taphouse in Dearborn, among others.
Even with all this success, she had a different promise to keep -- for herself.
Coming full circle 16 years after her first degree, she returned to HFC in Winter 2023 to resume her pursuit of that elusive nursing career. “My kids are older now, allowing me to return to school. I said I’d begin work on my nursing degree when my youngest started high school. And here I am.”
Born in Cleveland, OH, Abdusshakur is the eldest of six. She has been married to Adam Gaynier, who is also in the culinary industry, for 18 years. They have a blended family of four children and live in Dearborn Heights. After completion of her associate degree in nursing, she plans to transfer to the University of Michigan-Flint to finish her undergraduate education.
“Being a sous chef at Fifty-One O One was the reason I was able to do so well in the food industry for as long as I did,” she said.
“I was very good at this [culinary], but I knew I didn’t want to open another restaurant. The pandemic shook things up,” she explained. “This was my lightbulb moment. I realized I could do things on my own like food trucks and ghost kitchens (a virtual restaurant that serves customers exclusively by delivery and pick-up based on telephone and online ordering), but I always wanted to go into the healthcare field. I’ve always known I wanted to be a nurse, so the time was right.”
Abdusshakur continued: “To give back, I felt I should be doing something in health care. The women closest to me were all nurses: One of my grandmothers, my great-grandmother, and an aunt. My great-grandmother was an obstetrics nurse. I thought that was the coolest thing! That inspired me to want to be a nurse.”
Connections: Star-Trek science technology and the Hawks' Nest
Abdusshakur is excited about being back at HFC for a number of reasons.
“It’s amazing to be back. I love how much it’s grown. It’s close and it’s very comforting. It’s still welcoming and easily accessible. That hasn’t changed. Then and now, the people who work at the College – especially those in Career Services – will go out of their way to accommodate you,” she said.
The nursing field has grown a lot since her first foray as a student at HFC. The College has state-of-the-art technology that is a valuable tool when learning the sciences.
“It’s a good thing I waited, because there are so many opportunities in nursing now, so many different graduate degrees,” she said. “We even have a virtual cadaver at HFC. I remember seeing it for the first time – I felt like I was on Star Trek!”
Abdusshakur is one of several student employees working in the Hawks' Nest, HFC’s food bank for students who are facing food insecurity.
“I’m always telling counselors and advisors to let their students know about the Hawks' Nest. I encourage the tour guides to bring potential students and new students by the Hawks’ Nest, to increase visibility. I hope the Hawks' Nest will do more food drives. I will personally lead students in if I have to!” she said, laughing.
“A bright light for herself”
“Tara has so much passion, and her enthusiastic energy is infectious. She is amazingly self-motivated and brings her full self to everything she does. It’s wonderful having someone like Tara at HFC; her creativity and varied skillset have been invaluable for the Hawks’ Nest and Student Activities,” said HFC Student Activities Administrative Assistant Kayla Collins.
For Abdusshakur, she is on the track to her dream, and the promise of a second successful career.
“It’s so good to be back at HFC – I can’t say that enough! I feel safe and comfortable here. It’s my second home,” she said. “I’m excited about the path I’m on!”
HFC Director of Student Activities Cassandra Fluker has had many opportunities to work with Abdusshakur.
“I’m proud of Tara for seeing a brighter light for herself and taking action to set a new direction. She will be excellent as a nurse because of her radiant personality and genuine spirit of helping and caring for others,” said Fluker. “Her life experience enables her to connect with younger students and help with their journey. She is a ray of sunshine and brings positive energy to campus. It’s great to have Tara as a member of the Student Activities team as she pursues her personal and professional goals.”