Spring 2021 Newsletter


May 19, 2021Receive the Cooke Chronicle in your Inbox: Subscribe here.

As another school year marred by the coronavirus comes to a close, the Cooke Foundation is reflecting on just how much our Scholars have achieved. We’ve always been blown away by what they can accomplish in the face of adversity, but the COVID-19 pandemic has only magnified that appreciation — and increased our resolve to support them the best we can. They have persisted through a difficult year of remote learning, financial difficulties, and deep anxiety about the health of their loved ones.

Take Joel Walker, a recent recipient of our Cooke College Scholarship. When the pandemic hit, Joel’s family and surrounding community faced a number of setbacks. Many of his co-workers at the store he works at contracted the virus, so Joel began taking on extra and longer shifts to both support his family and help keep the store running. He was soon promoted to manager, leading a team who were largely older and more experienced than him. All the while, Joel was dual-enrolled at Donaldsonville High School and River Parishes Community College. He will graduate in May with both a high school diploma and an associate’s degree. He now plans to pursue an undergraduate degree in pre-med at Morehouse College, hoping to one day become a trauma surgeon.

Linh Nguyen, another new College Scholar, recently faced similar hardships after a parent temporarily lost their job due to COVID-19. But this year was also one filled with major accomplishments for Linh. She took top honors at the 2021 Maine State Science Fair after presenting research focused on developing an inexpensive way to remove arsenic from drinking water systems. Competing virtually, Nguyen won the First Place Grand Award in the Environmental Engineering category. She also built and coded Reform the Narrative, a website focused on centering BIPOC youth through writing, interviews, and educational resources.

Last week, we were thrilled to welcome a terrific new cohort of Undergraduate Transfer Scholars. Community colleges have been especially hard-hit during the pandemic, with enrollment dropping nearly 10 percent. Even before COVID-19, community college transfers only accounted for five percent of students at the nation’s top colleges. This is despite research commissioned by the Foundation showing that community college students who transfer to selective institutions have equal to or higher graduation rates as students who enrolled directly from high school or transferred from other four-year institutions. The Undergraduate Transfer Scholarship seeks to increase the number of community college students completing their education at top four-year institutions.

These are students like Donna Nestor, who served in the U.S. army during the Gulf War, and was the first female medical specialist in her attack helicopter unit’s history. Her college and career plans were put on hold, however, after she moved in with her parents to care for them. After attending St. Petersburg College, Donna is now transferring to a four-year institution to pursue a bachelor’s degree in chemistry.

Another 2021 Cooke Transfer Scholar, Pedro Moranchel, has an innate knack for student leadership and advocacy. The struggles of his parents, both immigrants from Mexico and Honduras, motivated him to think big and work hard to achieve his goals. Pedro served in student government at his school, Hudson Community College, and was Phi Theta Kappa Vice President of Scholarship on campus. He organized volunteer events in his community, and was selected as a 2021 Achieving the Dream DREAM scholar, for which he was given the opportunity to meet with community college administration and share his experiences to improve student success.

Following the challenges of the last year, the Cooke Foundation has made the decision to increase the amount of our undergraduate awards and double our support for Cooke Graduate Scholars to help ensure students like Donna, Linh, Pedro, and Joel are able to succeed in college without incurring the insurmountable amount of debt that plagues so many graduates. Even as we hope the end of the pandemic may soon be on the horizon, we will keep working to find new ways to support our Scholars on their college journeys.

Warm regards,

Seppy Basili

News for High-Achieving Students

The Hechinger Report highlighted Illinois school district U-46’s work to diversify its gifted education program in the wake of a lawsuit. Over the course of eight years, the district put new practices in place — including certifying all elementary gifted teachers in ESL and implementing anti-racism training for teachers. As a result, students in gifted programs reflected the district’s student body as a whole. In 2009, Hispanic students made up 46% of the student body, but just 26% of gifted students. By 2017, 54% of the districts’ students were Hispanic, and it’s gifted classes were 48%. U-46 alumna and now teacher April Wells put it this way,  “Any school system can fix gifted inequity if they believe ‘that all children deserve to learn in an environment that matches their talents and abilities.’”

In a recent series in the The Wall Street Journal, educators from across the country weigh in on whether gifted and talented programs advance or are at odds with educational equity. The series highlights both the controversies and opportunities that gifted programs present in addressing opportunity gaps.

Cooke Foundation Highlights

Wallace State graduate Aljon Celis, a 2020 Jack Kent Cooke Scholar, was one of 50 Jack Kent Cooke scholarship recipients in April and chose Stanford over multiple prestigious colleges. Celis was recently recognized as a national 2020 Sigma Kappa Delta award winner for his short fiction story “Brown,” a story about an immigrant of color who is struggling to overcome his identity crisis in modern day America.

Cooke Scholar Benjamin Arbaugh, a 2014 Westminster High School graduate, is excited to pursue a Ph.D. in biological systems engineering with a designated emphasis in biotechnology at University of California, Davis. He is currently researching the long-term stability of plant beneficial bacteria and their application to sustainable agriculture.

What We’re Reading

Forbes –How to Make College Pay

New York Times –Teenagers Are Struggling, and It’s Not Just Lockdown

Inside Higher Ed Student –  You’re Doing Better Than You Think. And You Should Still Ask for Help

Inside Philanthropy –Here’s How One Community Foundation Works to Get Students To and Through College