For Edward Aguilar, of Immokalee, who nearly died of alcohol-related disease just two years ago, the path chosen led to graduation Dec. 12 from The Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale (AIFL), magna cum laude, with an associate of science in culinary arts.
The husband of Cindy Aguilar, father of three and grandfather of two, will next attend Florida Gulf Coast University to earn a bachelor’s degree in hospitality management.
Meanwhile, Aguilar is also in the Tribal Career Development Program, a multifaceted training initiative through Seminole Gaming that gives qualified Tribal members a chance to learn gaming, hospitality, hotel and food business from the ground up.
Dressed in a chef coat and pleated toque, Aguilar, 35, marched to Pomp and Circumstance with more than 200 other AIFL graduates.
He wore two honor cords around his neck: silver indicated “great distinction” with a grade point average as high as 3.99; red identified winners of the Future Design Award in various categories for exceptional design sense, variety and talent.
“My baby is a miracle. God gave him a second chance and I am really proud of what he has done with it,” said Aguilar’s father, Pedro Aguilar, with his mother Elaine Aguilar, who served in various Tribal offices for 27 years by his side.
Aguilar’s work ethic has always been superior. The youngest of six siblings, he worked Tribal jobs since age 14 – first, he was a summer camp counselor for younger kids at the Immokalee youth center. Later, while playing football for Immokalee High School, he cleaned swimming pools and worked part time for Seminole Media Productions.
He admits he took six years to finally graduate high school in 1999 – even as he wowed friends and family with his barbecue cooking. Eventually, he launched his own barbecue catering. He also worked seven years as the
Lead Commission Officer at Immokalee Casino and later as the administrative assistant to Board Rep. Delores Jumper.
“I was good, but I was young and drinking. I was a functional alcoholic,” Aguilar said.
Aguilar said nearly dying saved his life.
“I got sick on April 4, 2011, and was hoping to get into detox – instead I went into a coma,” he said.
First his pancreas shut down and then the rest of his organs began to fail. The doctors gave up, he said.
Eight months later, he had awoken and was fit to return home, but not cleared for work. Unwilling to sit still, he went to cooking school. Aguilar said cooking was always his passion. He was taught the basics by his mother who warned her son that food preparation is essential knowledge for every man – especially if he grew up to marry someone not so fond of the kitchen.
Elaine Aguilar said her son’s graduation made her a happier parent.
“When you have kids and they grow up to succeed it makes you feel good. Now, if he can learn to make fry bread…,” she said.
The self-described “meat and potatoes man” attended a “hamburgers and fries” tech school first, then switched to AIFL where he studied pastry baking and Latin, European, Arabic, American and South American cuisine.
With a home in Tampa, most family based in Immokalee, school in Fort Lauderdale and Palm Beach living arrangements during the school week, earning a college degree was a challenge for the entire Aguilar family – but a welcomed one.
“I’m so excited and proud of my husband. We can’t wait to start the next chapter,” Cindy Aguilar said.
Edward Aguilar said the Tribal Career Development Program “opened a whole new world.” Since he started in February 2012, Aguilar spent six months in food and beverage and another six months in marketing. He plans to continue working in the casinos, but next time armed with a solid education to be a Hard Rock International manager in the food and beverages side of hospitality.
In January, he will become the first Tribal member to go through the Hard Rock’s formal management training program. Orientation is set for Jan. 20 in Orlando.
“One door has opened another and now the sky is the limit,” Aguilar said.