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An Army Sergeant’s Healing Journey to JWU Denver

JWU Denver student Kenny Sargent in Italy with fellow JWU students Sarah Hegge, Cora Gaines and Kate Ethridge. (Chef Massimo Bocus in the center.)

Kenneth Sargent '19 never thought he’d walk again after a rocket attack shattered 3 bones in his spine while on deployment in Iraq. Even doctors told the Army staff sergeant that he’d probably spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair.

Fast forward 7 years, Sargent proved everyone wrong — including himself. Sargent not only learned to walk again, he’s practically running marathons as a chef-in-training at Johnson & Wales University’s Denver Campus.

It certainly wasn’t an easy journey. When he was left the army after 16 years of honorable service, Sargent said he was in a dark place. He suffered from PTSD and a traumatic brain injury. He felt lost without purpose.

“I wasn’t in a uniform any more, I had nothing to do with my life, I had no job. I wasn’t doing anything. I found myself in the garage one day with the same clothes that I slept in and I realized it was 5pm. I hadn’t showered yet, hadn’t brushed my teeth, hadn’t combed my hair — nothing.”

One day, a spark happened within Sargent and he decided to research culinary schools. A friend’s niece just graduated from Johnson & Wales, and suddenly Sargent found himself on a campus tour in Denver. It was no going back from there — JWU Denver was the start of a new journey.

“When I started JWU, I had a purpose. I had a reason to get out of the bed. Class starts at 7am and I’m in the university’s parking lot at 5:45am,” said Sargent, who drove from his house in Colorado Springs to class, a 68-mile one-way trek every day, even during blizzards.

Sargent also met a fellow veteran in class: Air Force veteran Kate Ethridge, who became Sargent’s best friend and class buddy at JWU Denver. They shared a tradition of meeting at 4am at a local diner to prepare for their practicum final facing them later that morning.

When I started at JWU, I had a purpose.”

“I’d take a bullet for that girl — she’s my best, best friend,” said Sargent.

Ethridge and Sargent’s bond was solidified, so much so, that they decided to study abroad together in Italy. Right before their departure, Sargent’s father became gravely ill.

“One of my dad’s last wishes was for me to do this experience in Italy,” said Sargent. Sadly, Sargent’s dad died while he was abroad. “All along, I’m in Italy when he passed — I was still trying to focus on everything knowing that my father passed away. It was a heck of a challenge.”

While abroad, Sargent was overcome with the sights, sounds and tastes of Florence, Italy. For his final exam, Sargent and Ethridge were charged with overseeing the entire production of dinner at Ganzo, the creative learning lab restaurant of the Apicius International School of Hospitality.

Before Sargent left to come home to the US, his Italian mentor Chef Massimo Bocus made an offer he couldn’t refuse — he tapped Sargent as a candidate for the master’s program at Florence University of the Arts (FUA). He also invited Sargent, along with 11 other JWU students, to represent FUA at Tutto Toscana, a prestigious James Beard Foundation event in New York City this past October.

“Kenny is a great representative of the ‘nontraditional’ student that is an inspiration for all students,” said Denver dean of Culinary Education Jorge de la Torre. “He took advantage of what JWU offered and it opened up his world of options.”

Sargent’s next dream? After graduation in May 2019, he wants to open a nonprofit retreat in Texas for veterans and their families. The retreat will provide hunting and culinary experiences led by Sargent, and provide families the opportunity to reconnect, heal and bond.

ABOVE: JWU DENVER STUDENT KENNeth SARGENT IN ITALY WITH FELLOW JWU STUDENTS SARAH HEGGE, CORA GAINES AND KATE ETHRIDGE. (CHEF MASSIMO BOCUS IN THE CENTER.)
BELOW: SARGENT PREPPING IN NYC. // COOKING AT THE TUTTO TOSCANA GALA, JAMES BEARD HOUSE: BACK, L-R: JESSY HARB, KEN SARGENT, KATE MOLLENKOPF, LIZ HARRIS, JORDAN MOORER, CHEF DE CASTRO, SARAH HEGGE, CHEF BOCUS. FRONT, L-R: ERIN DENNY, LORI LUPARDI, DEVIN ZORN, KEVIN PESAPANE, CORA GAINES. NYC PHOTOS: DAVID WEISS

Sargent prepping in NYC with the Tutto Toscana team. Photo: David Weiss

The JWU team with Chef Bocus before the Tutto Toscana event at James Beard House. Photo: David Weiss

Topics: Study Abroad Denver