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updated: 5/21/2012 5:47 PM

Two Naperville North alumni receive 'Learners to Leaders' award

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  • Mike Sommers

    Mike Sommers

  • Megan Garrelts

    Megan Garrelts

By Annalisa Rodriguez

Sometimes it takes an inspirational story to help push youngsters in the right direction.

Students at Naperville North High School got to hear two such stories Monday from two very different alumni.

Megan Garrelts and Mike Sommers held leadership seminars with students interested in their respective fields after the pair received "Learners to Leaders" awards from the school earlier in the day.

Garrelts is a pastry chef and author; Sommers is deputy chief of staff for U.S. House Speaker John Boehner.

A group of nine students interested in culinary arts had lunch and spoke with Garrelts about her experiences, while a group of 15 did the same with Sommers.

The Learners to Leaders award is Naperville North's version of a Hall of Fame for distinguished alumni. The recipients are selected based on contributions to their field or service to their community or the nation.

Principal Kevin Pobst said it's important for students to see they can be successful with nontraditional paths, such as Garrelts, who opted out of a four-year college.

"We want to establish role models and examples for current students of different ways you can build a career," Pobst said.

Sommers, Class of 1993, advises Boehner on all matters before the House of Representatives, runs the daily operation of Boehner's office and manages the activities of the House Republican Leadership.

In 2010, he managed the policy development of "A Pledge to America," the House Republican plan for the 2010 election in which Republicans gained the majority. He has worked on legislation such as the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) and the Tax Relief and Health Care Act of 2006.

Sommers told students certain teachers were instrumental in helping him work toward his goals.

"Having somebody challenge what you believe, that's an important part of your development," he said.

Politics was always an area of interest for Sommers, who said he showed zero interest in other subjects.

"I have always believed that what you should do is ... follow your passion, and you should turn your passion into a career," he told students. "When you're doing what you love, it doesn't feel like work."

Garrelts, Class of 1998, began her culinary career at 15 when she met a professional chef for the first time. She worked in restaurant kitchens throughout high school and enrolled in a program where she could leave school early to go to work.

She and her husband opened their own restaurant, bluestem, in Kansas City on March 15, 2004.

The couple released their first cookbook, "bluestem the Cookbook," last fall. It features cuisine and recipes from their restaurant.

Garrelts said she was not the best student in high school, so for her, it was about finding her own path and doing what she loved.

"The world has a lot out there," Garrelts said. "Whatever you're passionate about, if you put yourself in the right position, anything's possible."

Garrelts told students it can be hard in high school when their parents may want them to pursue certain career paths.

"Don't let anyone push you somewhere that you don't want to be because you won't be happy," she told students. "Make sure you love what you do, and if you don't, change it."

Students should start working in positions relating to their career as soon as possible, Garrelts said.

"Get a summer job," Garrelts said. "Start doing it. It's never too soon to start."

Barbara Bostrom has been teaching culinary arts at Naperville North High School for 10 years. She said the seminars were very beneficial for students.

"It helps them tremendously to see what really happens and the ins and outs, not just what they see in a pamphlet or online," Bostrom said. "It tells the real story of working with people and working in the industry and what it takes."

Freshman Amanda Petrucci has had dreams of opening her own restaurant and has been interested in culinary arts since sixth grade.

"It kind of showed me the reality," Petrucci said. "I really have to take into better idea how I'm going to be able to do it and how it's going to probably work out."

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