Sammy McDowell lasted two weeks at community college. He was just 17 years old but he looked at the curriculum for the months ahead, thought he was learning more at his job at KFC, and chose the training program there over sticking it out at Minneapolis Community and Technical College. 

That was 26 years ago. Now the 43-year-old McDowell is in charge. 

After stints managing restaurants and catering businesses, he’s built his own place on the corner of Emerson and Broadway in North Minneapolis. No one would be mistaken about who’s running the show—his face is part of the ubiquitous logo at Sammy’s Avenue Eatery. “I love calling the shots,” he says standing behind the counter on Wednesday morning. 

Sammy McDowell at his restaurant in North Minneapolis.

Seven years after founding the business, he’s planning to open another location a few miles away, But on this morning he’s the only one manning the cafe. A couple of his staffers are off getting ready for the fall semester at community college. 

When he talks to his young employees about college he says, “I want to make sure they have a clear plan.”

A degree alone doesn’t translate to success, he tells them. “The degree doesn’t lead you to your passion,” he says. “You’ve got to figure out what you’re really supposed to be doing. Everybody should work in their passion. You don’t want to spend 35 years of work to just getting along and paying the bills. Then what?”

You’ve got to figure out what you’re really supposed to be doing. Everybody should work in their passion.

Sammy McDowell

McDowell has a plan for what’s next. He’s already taken two trips to Africa this year, has purchased some property in Senegal, and dreams about retiring by the time he’s 50.

“I had my own mind,” McDowell says about those couple of weeks in college decades ago. “College isn’t for everybody.”

The Back-To-School Road Trip
Over eight days we’re driving from Minneapolis to New Orleans, talking about college with Americans along the way. Follow us on Twitter: @opencampusmedia.

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