April 2023 Newsletter

As we approach the end of the school year, we here at the Cooke Foundation are looking back with pride at another challenging but fantastic academic year with our Scholars. We also can’t help but look forward to the year ahead—and to the new faces that will begin their college journey with us in the fall. 

In late March, the Foundation announced that 60 graduating high school seniors will receive the Cooke College Scholarship. They will join the 45 Cooke Young Scholars who are graduating high school this year and have also been accepted into the Cooke College Scholarship Program. These students entered the Cooke Young Scholars Program as 8th graders in 2018.

This cohort of 105 Scholars is especially noteworthy, as the vast majority of their time in high school has been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. If their perseverance throughout the immense disruptions of the pandemic is any indication, these Scholars are going to thrive throughout the next four years. Indeed, their accomplishments so far have already shown us just how full of passion and determination they are. 

Autumn Pepper Rhodes, one of the 2023 College Scholars, has experienced many hardships over the past few years. Her school was impacted by both the pandemic and Hurricane Ian. Many of her friends lost their homes, cars, and businesses. Her school district remained closed for weeks. Still, Pepper has soared—figuratively as a student and literally as a certified pilot, which she became at the age of 17. She is also leading a campaign in her community to change the Girl Scouts of America policy that prevents girls who are interested in aviation from flying planes while their counterpart, the Boy Scouts, are allowed to when pursuing an aviation badge.

Another of this year’s College Scholars, Bishop Jackson, persevered through spotty Zoom calls and overwhelmed teachers during the early days of the pandemic, ostensibly teaching himself several AP classes. Fortunately, Bishop says he’s always up for a challenge. That’s especially true when the challenge is connected to helping others. Despite having no prior experience with 3D printing or soldering, he designed and manufactured a portable phoropter from scratch, creating a device for determining glasses prescriptions that can be easily produced and distributed to low-income areas. Bishop has also dedicated more than 80 hours to volunteering at food banks and soup kitchens.

This group of students not only experienced a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic during their high school years, but also a period of national reckoning on race. Following the death of George Floyd, another Scholar in this cohort, Kellsie Lewis, created an Instagram page to provide support and a safe space for Black students at her Baltimore school, which in turn sparked the “Black At” social movement throughout the DMV area. In order to become a more effective community activist, Kellsie took an online social justice course offered by Johns Hopkins University. For her leadership, she was later recognized as a recipient of the Princeton Prize in Race Relations.

Anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment has been increasing over the last few years, particularly at the state policy level. When a law that would have a significant impact on young queer people began to take shape in Florida, Stephanie Acosta led her classmates in writing to their senator about the harmful bill. Stephanie is a talented writer and also wrote a highly-praised one-act play about fighting against bigotry. Stephanie hopes to help young people in the LGBTQ+ community both through her writing and as a psychologist. 

We congratulate these incredible students as they approach their high school graduation, and celebrate the family, friends, educators, and other support systems that assisted them along the way. We cannot wait to see what these Scholars and their peers accomplish in the coming years.

Warm regards,

Seppy Basili 


Cooke Foundation Highlights

In closing out Women’s History Month, the Cooke Foundation’s chief counsel, Denise Holmes, looked at the history and future of female presidents in higher education. While acknowledging and celebrating the immense progress made in recent years, Denise also discussed the changes that must still be made to achieve gender parity among college leaders.  

Undergraduate Transfer Scholar Francesca Raoelison is the founder and executive director of the nonprofit Omena, a youth-led initiative aiming to end the cycle of emotional abuse. In a discussion with the Foundation, Francesca tells the story of her entrepreneurship journey that led her to begin this movement. 

Dr. Tinsay and Dr. Fasika Woreta, identical twins who were in the first ever cohort of Cooke Scholars in 2002, attended Johns Hopkins University Medical School with their scholarship funding, and both still currently work there as faculty. They each are heavily involved in supporting equity in medicine through their leadership roles at Hopkins, and reflect on how their Cooke scholarship impacted their careers in this article.


News for High-Achieving Students

A new report from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center (NSCRC) revealed significant strides in college enrollment statistics after years of decline due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Community college enrollment increased by more than 2 percent and undergraduate enrollment steadied, showing a slight increase of 0.2 percent, for the first time in two years. 

State-wide diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives are increasingly being targeted by state leaders. As of April 7, the Chronicle of Higher Education has tracked 31 bills that have been introduced in 18 states that would prohibit college and university campuses from such efforts as having DEI offices or staff, adopting mandatory diversity training, using DEI statements in hiring, and using affirmative action in admissions or employment. 

The STARS (Small-Town And Rural Students) College Network has received a $20 million investment. The STARS College Network, which encourages high school students residing in rural America to pursue higher education, includes 16 leading universities and colleges, including Brown University, Yale University, and Northwestern University. With this new financial support, members of the network are expected to increase their efforts in enrolling students from rural areas through a series of workshops, campus visits, and outreach.

Officials at the Department of Education’s Office of Federal Student Aid (FSA), have released a PDF version of the new Free Application for Student Aid (FAFSA) form for feedback. In an effort to simplify the process for applicants, the FSA has worked to eliminate requirements to upload tax returns, remove particularly cumbersome questions, and change the equations used to calculate family contributions and Pell Grant eligibility. 


What We’re Reading

Community College DailyCommunity colleges face a crisis. Are former students the answer?  

Education WeekHow Career Prep Programs Went From ‘Dumping Ground’ to Top Priority 

The Hechinger ReportMany community college students never earn a degree. New approaches to advising aim to reverse that trend 

MIT Technology ReviewChatGPT is going to change education, not destroy it 

USA TodayWomen account for two-thirds of US student loan debt. Here’s how it affects them