Cooke Conversation: 5 Questions with Karen Cruz
We’re continuing our series of alumni profiles by interviewing Cooke Scholars from across our scholarship programs. We hope to inspire current and future Cooke Scholars by highlighting the incredible range of personalities, ambitions, and accomplishments of this talented group.
My name is Karen Cruz, and I am twenty-two years old. I was born and raised in Mexico until I moved to the United States at the age of eight. In 7th grade, I took the SAT as part of the Duke Talent Identification Program (Duke TIP), and later that year I became a Young Scholar at the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation. I attended Greenhill School and went on to Yale University where I obtained a Bachelor of Arts in History of Science, Medicine, and Public Health in 2015. While at Yale, I was also an Italian major, a cheerleader, a member of Pi Beta Phi fraternity, and a medical interpreter at the Haven Free Clinic. Upon graduation, I joined Teach for America, and I currently teach Physics and Environmental Systems at Wilmer-Hutchins High School in Dallas, Texas.
1. What does being a Cooke Scholar mean to you?
Being a Young Scholar and later a College Scholar at the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation changed my life. As an immigrant, a Latina, and a female from a low-income family, I know my life could have turned out very differently from what it is now. Were it not for the individuals who fostered in me a love and appreciation for education and the institutions that gave me great opportunities (Greenhill, Yale, and the Cooke Foundation), I would have never gone further than the stereotypes or societal expectations say I should. Being a Cooke Scholar made me a firm believer that high expectations bring forth greatness and that given the opportunity to succeed, every child will do so. That is precisely what inspired me to become a teacher.
2. Tell us about your most memorable moment as a Young Scholar.
When I was transitioning from middle school to high school, my parents, my educational advisor from the Cooke Foundation, and I sat down to discuss my options for high school. There was my home campus versus a newly-opened, lottery-based high school that offered career tracks, and then there were the private schools (all-girl, co-ed, and boarding schools). It was overwhelming to think about applying to private schools that I knew nothing about, and I was tempted to go somewhere that felt safer academically and socially (like my home campus). I’d been the top student at my public middle school, and I knew I could continue to be the best at the high school five minutes from my house. Instead, my educational advisor told me, “Do you want to be the star or would you rather be a star among stars?” She never pressured me, but with that she encouraged me to look beyond what I’d known. Being the best was not as valuable as being in a place where I was going to be challenged and where I could grow from learning with my peers, and she was right. I’ve never stopped being thankful for that moment.
3. What was the best advice given to you as an undergraduate in college?
As an undergraduate, I was encouraged to pursue what made me happy, and as cliché and obvious as that sounds, it was advice that I truly needed. Like many high-achieving students, I went into college with a very specific goal and a detailed, step-by-step list of how I was going to get there. Once I had been in college for a couple of months, I realized that I’d been very narrow-minded and at times sacrificed my happiness for this single idea of success. The idea of pursuing my passions is what guided me to choose two majors that I truly loved and convinced me never to give up my extracurriculars and the other things that made me feel better in times of stress.
4. Describe a moment you were challenged outside of your comfort zone when pursuing an interest.
The most recent example of a large challenge would be my current profession. As part of Teach For America, I became certified to teach any type of science (Biology, Chemistry, Physics, etc.) but I was seriously hoping to obtain a job in Biology or Chemistry since I had lots of experience in those two areas after college and high school courses. Luck was not on my side, and I was assigned to teach Physics, which I’d never taken in high school or college. Initially, I was extremely nervous and concerned, but I realized that it was all a matter of commitment and a great opportunity to learn something new. I dedicated myself to studying the subject daily, and I truly think the process of being a learner has made me a better teacher. In my first semester of teaching, my Physics students achieved the second highest passing rate out of all of the Dallas ISD high schools, which was incredible.
5. Why would you recommend high-achieving 7th graders to apply for the Young Scholars Program?
This is an opportunity to change your life. If you’re a good student, the Cooke Foundation will provide you with the resources to make you great. As a Young Scholar, I was given the opportunity to attend summer programs at universities across the United States, and these programs truly exposed me to another world full of diversity and endless academic possibilities. Those summer experiences, along with the Scholar Weekends, and everything else that the foundation provided me with enriched my life in more ways than I can count. It was because of the foundation that someone like me made it to Yale, and I will forever be grateful for that.