Roots: Freestyling for Change

National Hispanic Heritage Month is observed from September 15 – October 15 every year. The Latin American countries Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Costa Rica celebrate their independence from Spain on September 15, and shortly after, Mexico and Chile celebrate their independence days on September 16 and 18.  This blog post is part of a series highlighting Latino and Hispanic Cooke Scholars and how they stay connected to their heritage while pursuing their college degrees.


Cooke Transfer Scholar Eduardo Hernandez performs at Scholars Weekend 2022

Eduardo Hernandez knows the best times to earn tips while performing on the New York City subway. Mondays are the worst, but Wednesday afternoons between 3:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m. are the most lucrative. On holidays, people are in a happy mood and tend to be more generous.

Eduardo, a 2022 Cooke Undergraduate Transfer Scholar, moved to the United States with his family in early 2017. He still needed to finish high school, but had to wait for the new school year to begin before he could enroll in the fall.

“In those months, I didn’t know what to do so I used to go to the subway and I would freestyle,” Eduardo said. “That was my job.”

Eduardo has been passionate about Spanish freestyle rapping since he first tried it in 2014. In El Salvador, his home country, hip hop and freestyle events are a common way for young people to escape the reality of heavy criminal and gang activity. He fell in love with freestyle and ultimately started travelling to competitions and gaining more and more exposure. In 2019, Eduardo performed at the most notable Spanish language freestyle rap competition in the United States, Red Bull Batalla, under his freestyle moniker, “Zeu.” He placed fourth.

Eduardo celebrates his achievements with his new cohort of Cooke Transfer Scholars

“Freestyle is a way to build confidence,” Eduardo said. “I feel that without freestyle, I probably wouldn’t be where I am right now. It was a way to get more exposure, become more extroverted, learn how to socialize, and talk to people. It’s a way to remember who I am.”

Eduardo also values the social benefits of freestyle and hip hop culture. He has many peers who were inspired by the craft and left the idea of joining a gang or getting involved with criminal activity behind.

“It’s a way to improve as a person because it gives you discipline,” Eduardo said. It gives you critical thinking and problem-solving skills, public speaking skills. The social change you can create with this discipline is just so great.”

When Eduardo arrived in the U.S. five years ago, he didn’t know any English. His worked as a cashier at McDonald’s where he struggled with the language barrier at first, but learned quickly. Within two years, he was completely fluent in English, and had earned his high school diploma. He heard from a friend that community college was the most affordable option to continue his education, so he enrolled at Bergen Community College in Paramus, NJ. He was invited to do STEM research because of his high GPA, and the director of the program told him about the Cooke Undergraduate Transfer Scholarship.

“I told him I appreciated it, but that I was an international student and don’t really qualify for most scholarships. He told me that for this one, I would qualify,” Eduardo said. “I just became obsessed with it.”

His hard work paid off, and he transferred to Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, NJ as a cybersecurity major and Cooke Scholar this fall. One day, he wants to be a cybersecurity penetration tester or security engineer for a company. While freestyle rapping is a passion that helps him stay connected to his roots, Eduardo sees it as a hobby that’s helped him develop the skills to get to this point so far.

“I still wonder how,” Eduardo said. “Sometimes I’m in the car, and I’m just like… I don’t know how this happened. I should be on the subway freestyling again.”


The Cooke Undergraduate Transfer Scholarship application will open on October 6, 2022 and is due at midnight on January 12, 2023 in your local time zone. Find out more here.