By Kate Whitney
Richard Witting, 43, is a UVM graduate with a degree in Anthropology and owner/event planner/head chef of Firefly Catering, serving the Burlington area.
He’s also a high school dropout.
“I had failed high school straight across the board.” Witting laughed. “I wanted to skip classes and read my own books. I always loved learning—I just didn’t work really well with the institutional learning of high school.”
Witting, who had started his career in the food industry during high school, continued to work in restaurants after he quit school. “I love cooking,” Witting said. “But at the time I was doing stints where you have to work all the time and sometimes, you’re not getting paid too much. It’s a grueling job and I wasn’t convinced it was the thing for me. I mean, I love school and I love learning—but I failed it, so there was part of me that was always wondering if there was some other career that was where my heart is.”
Almost immediately after leaving high school behind, Witting began taking courses at the Community College of Vermont (CCV), exploring subjects that he was always held his interest, like art, writing and ecology. “I enjoyed them,” Witting said. “I have pretty good memories of that time and it felt different than high school. The college experience was more like, you don’t have to be here. If you want to be here— be here.” However, issues with his student loans put an abrupt end to his academic trajectory and ten more years passed before he would return to college.
In 2009, Witting came back to CCV, taking classes here and there to “try things out,” but continued cooking in restaurants and launching his new business, Firefly Catering. It wasn’t until his last year at CCV, in 2014, that Witting attended school full-time in order to get his Associate’s Degree and attend UVM, which required that Witting complete his high school requirements as college courses at CCV before applying. Looking back, Witting jokes about the experience and his long road to UVM. “I really maxed out my CCV experience,” Witting chuckled. “They were like, you can’t stay here any longer, you have too many credits. You can’t accidentally get your bachelor’s degree at CCV.”
“I really needed those years at CCV,” he continued. “I didn’t have very good writing skills, I didn’t know how to work on a project, I didn’t know how to research. There are a lot of things you get out of high school if you follow the program that I hadn’t done, so CCV was perfect for that.”
The Path to Anthropology + Food
It was Witting’s advisor at CCV who first suggested he take a course in anthropology. “I was like, I don’t even know what that word means,” Witting recounted. “And she said, you just need to sign up for this class. And the professor was this guy named Larry Ziegler—he was just amazing, and I thought, I’ve found my religion. I think academically—even spiritually—this was the subject that really spoke to me.”
When Witting matriculated to UVM, he knew that anthropology would be his major. But it was when he started taking courses that he discovered that there were food and culinary subdisciplines within the field of study. “I thought, oh my god, my food skills and my brain can actually work together,” Witting said, citing the food systems/food movements courses taught by Dr. Teresa Mares as being particularly eye-opening and exciting.
“My focus was food and cooking throughout my career before school, so I did a lot of working in restaurants of different ethnicities, I changed jobs a lot and tried to learn different skills and take different opportunities and try to make every experience a learning experience,” Witting said. “I was already doing this dinner series, called the Esole Dinner Club, sort of at the beginning of the whole dinner club craze. I’d pick a country and do this really immersive event to give people this experience of being somewhere else in their dining. When I went back to get my degree, I started doing this again, but doing themes with deeper research topics, combining the dinners with a lecture about, say, the history of food in Cuba. I did a whole series on the history of English literature—I did Beowulf with Anglo-Saxon food, I did Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus.”
“These dinners and what I do with food allows me to keep pursuing anthropology independently,” Witting said. “The degree allows me to deliver these dinners that people really love.”
Advantages of Online Degree Completion
Witting admits that his time in school posed significant challenges to achieving a perfect family/career/school balance.
While pursuing his Associate’s degree, he was still working 20-30 hours a week, and his wife Hannah, a hairdresser, had just given birth to their first daughter, Juniper, one month after graduating from CCV. “It was insane,” Witting said. “That was part of the reason why I was like, oh, I better hurry up and finish this.” Now a father of two, Witting wishes he could continue his educational journey at UVM, praising the incredible faculty—in particular, Mares, Dr. Luis VIvanco, and Dr. Deborah Blom, with whom he worked with as a research assistant.
“If I could, I would just go to school for anthropology or work with them all the time because it’s just so fascinating and really cool and I love the challenge of how difficult academic research is,” Witting said.
Reflecting on UVM’s new Online Degree Completion Program, Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) with a major in Anthropology, set to launch this fall, Witting said that he could recognize how the convenience of online courses could transform the learning experience for nontraditional students.
“I can see how online courses would allow working adults to schedule their time a lot better.”
In spite of the challenges along the way, Witting is grateful for the opportunities that his education has afforded and the benefits of a Bachelor’s degree.
“I recommend it for sure,” Witting stated. “I really value the connections I made, and I think it did a lot for me. There’s a level of confidence I have now about what I know and what I can do.”