Now doctoral student, GVSU graduate will give presentation for Kutsche Office of Local History

Headshot Dani Willcutt
Dani Willcutt will give a presentation on November 10 for the Kutsche Office of Local History; her focus will be Black tourism in West Michigan.
Image credit - courtesy photo

GVSU graduate Dani Willcutt took a winding path to a doctoral degree program at Michigan State University that merges her two passions — history and food.  

Her obsession with food and culture was honed during two study abroad programs in France. Willcutt said she developed a taste for simple bread and real olive oil while in Nice; and recalled great dinners with friends in Paris that centered on conversation as much as what was on the table.

"I returned to the U.S. intent on elevating my life through shared meals and conversation," she said.

Willcutt earned a bachelor's degree from Grand Valley in 2010 with a double major in history and international relations. 

Willcutt will give a virtual presentation, "Black Tourism in West Michigan," for Grand Valley's Kutsche Office of Local History November 10. The presentation will touch on Idlewild, in Lake County, and West Michigan as a tourist destination after the Great Migration, 1910-1960. Register for the free event online.

"When you look at what has been done for tourism, you have to consider, at the same time, the empty spaces and who wasn't invited," she said.  

Graduating from GVSU and looking for a job as the nation was coming out of a recession was difficult, she said.  

"I moved back to Lansing, where I'm from, and was working as a bartender," she said. "After a few months I began thinking, I can do this job anywhere."  

That lightbulb moment led Willcutt to Boston, where she soon landed a place to stay and found a restaurant to work in. After a few years, Willcutt was managing a restaurant in Harvard Square and had saved enough money to enroll in a master's degree program in gastronomy at Boston University.  

"I love learning and knew I always wanted to get a master's degree and go on to a Ph.D. program," she said.  

The BU gastronomy program was founded, in part, by culinary legend Julia Child and allows students to shape their degree; some students complete an intensive culinary program, Willcutt focused on food policy.   

"I took one class focused on cultural heritage preservation, another was cultural tourism management, which I enjoyed so much I got a certificate in it," Willcutt said. "I did my master's thesis on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, which is similar to California's Napa Valley but in a state that does not have a strong economy."  

Willcutt was also a Hauenstein Center Cook Leadership Academy fellow while at Grand Valley. She said networking and learning from local leaders was inspiring and proved a good complement to the university's history program.  

"I had so many wonderful professors in the history department. It's part of the reason I wanted to come to Grand Valley; I loved getting to know my professors," she said.      


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