HICKORY – Success is about taking advantage of opportunities and staying determined, characteristics some 2017 high school graduates have in common as they start the next chapter of their lives.
For Hickory High’s Torri Woods and St. Stephens High’s Kristina Perjar, a carpe-diem attitude and unique tenacity led them to chase and capture their dreams of higher education and business opportunities.
Starting from scratch
Woods completed her first professional baking job when she was 12 years old – double chocolate chip and sugar cookies – and since then, she’s created her own home baking business, Torri’z Sweet Dreamz.
During the last six years, she’s stayed focused on building up her skills and clientele, which led to $10,000 scholarship from the Service League of Hickory. She plans on using the money to attend Johnson and Wales University in Charlotte.
She considers her baking ability a “gift from God.”
“I’ve had a love for this since I was really little,” Woods said. “I remember I would help my grandma (Deborah Warren) cook and bake for Thanksgiving, Christmas and developed my love for it from her.”
Warren said out of 17 grandchildren, Woods is the only one who’s shown this level of interest to turn baking into a life-long passion and profession.
“I’m very excited for her and what she’s getting ready to go off to do. I’m proud of her,” Warren said.
“Fun” is the first word Warren uses to describe the hours the duo spent in the kitchen, when Woods was younger, preparing meals for the family.
“She always liked learning about cooking and baking. She’d just watch, and then she would pitch in,” Warren said.
While her grandmother mostly stayed out of the business, Woods’ mother, Natasha Brown, has become her baking assistant. No one in her family was surprised when Woods started to step out as a baker.
“When I was little, my dream was actually to have my own restaurant and my own bakery so that’s always been a goal of mine,” she said. “One day my mom had a dream and afterward came to me and said, ‘Torri, we’re about to start your business,’ and I said ‘OK, let’s do it.’”
Her mother purchased all the basic supplies needed to get the home-baking business started.
“I’m just very proud of her too because she has her head on straight, and I know she’s ready to move on to the next leg of her life journey,” Brown said.
While she’s best known for her wide range of personalized cakes, Woods also crafts cake pops, cookies, cup cakes, muffins and petit fours (bite-size cakes). The first cake she made professionally was for a bridal shower.
The reality of operating a business, even on a small scale, hit her early. The first lesson was realizing where profits needed to go – back into the business.
She also had to learn about getting a small business license to be a home baker and about hygiene and sanitation when cooking.
Another challenge was time. Along with baking and being a student, Woods also was a cheerleader and had to manage her time between school, cheerleading, homework and work.
In May, she made six cakes – each taking 3-4 days from the first mixing of batter to final frosting and decorating.
Winning the scholarship from the Service League of Hickory was essential for Woods.
“I was so happy because Johnson and Wales is my dream college. I never thought of any other college to go to,” she said. “I’m a perfectionist, so going there will help me get my skills down pat and help me learn other and new techniques I don’t know about.”
Once she gets to the university, Woods admitted she will slow down a little when it comes to her baking business, not as many occasional cakes, instead more wedding cakes.
The wedding cakes have become her favorite; she enjoys the creative challenge.
With any project, she starts with a cake tasting and has six different types for a client to try, and then they talk about details for what the cake will look like.
Looking at the examples on her business’s Facebook page, the possibilities are endless from sports themed cakes to Disney inspired cakes to a cake that looked like a record player.
Woods said her best advertising has been through “word of mouth.”
For more information about her business, visit Torri’z Sweet Dreamz on Facebook.
Making the most of every minute
St. Stephens High graduate Kristina Perjar is the first student to complete an associate degree through the Promise Scholars Initiative at Catawba Valley Community College (CVCC) – in two years.
The program delivers college instruction to a high school campus and is free for the students. Perjar also took classes at CVCC to help complete here associate in arts degree in her final two years of high school, which resulted in 64 college credit hours.
The state-funded program starts for high school juniors, who then are capable of earning up to 33 college credits. Perjar had to hit the gas pedal to squeeze in the extra classes to earn her associate degree along with her high school diploma.
Her motivation throughout this marathon of classes was to take advantage of the opportunity to save money for her parents.
“It was two years of free college,” Perjar said. “I was determined to finish it so I could move on to a four-year school without wasting any more time.”
The articulation agreement between CVCC and her school of choice, the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, meant all her classes from the community college were accepted at the four-year school. The time in community college also increased her confidence. She even applied at Harvard University and earned an interview.
“The guy at Harvard didn’t really believe I had graduated high school and from college. I guess it’s not a common situation,” Perjar said. “He was happy for me though and congratulated me.”
Mariyah Perjar said her daughter was very diligent when it came to doing everything she could to get all the classes she needed, working through winter and spring breaks and through the summer.
“She went to school in the morning and then in the afternoon; she would take CVCC classes,” Mariyah Perjar said. “We came here 22 years ago, and we started from zero so having her be able to earn a free two-year college degree saved us a lot of money.”
Kristina Perjar’s typical day started at 6 a.m. She’d leave the house around 7:30 a.m., drop off her brother at his middle school and head to St. Stephens High, where she took morning classes.
After those, she went to CVCC for additional classes before heading back home.
It wasn’t all just books for Kristina Perjar either. She was active in the Beta Club and other volunteer work at St. Stephens High. Some semesters, Kristina also went to CVCC for additional classes.
Kristina Perjar plans on keeping the pace at UNC Chapel Hill, too. Going in as a junior means she can use the extra two years to double major in business and communications.
As determined as she was, however, there were moments of doubt for Kristina Perjar.
“I had equal support. I had a lot of support from family and friends, but there were a lot of my peers who said it wasn’t worth it,” she said. “I wasn’t going to make it. I was wasting my time. My GPA (grade point average) would drop.”
She always turned back to her parents for encouragement.
“They taught me once you start something, you go in to finish it,” Kristina Perjar said. “You do your best through it all, so I decided as long as I’m taking classes I might a well go for the associate degree.”
Along with earning her two-year college degree, she finished St. Stephens High with a GPA of 4.7214.
She finished CVCC with high honors and a 4.0 GPA.
“I would say both St. Stephens High and CVCC have done an excellent job of preparing me. I’ve been so blessed to be part of both schools,” she said.
“CVCC showed me what college was, but at the same time, it was close to home and St. Stephens; there’s always competition in high school, and it helped. We were all competitive; all trying to get good grades and enroll in good classes.”
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