Summer Review: JKCF Scholars Weekend

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Part two of our three-part Summer Review series recounts Scholars Weekend, an annual event for all 2014 Cooke Scholars from each scholarship program.

Ask any Cooke Scholar to explain Scholars Weekend as though they were talking to someone who has never heard of the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, and you will be treated to a superbly articulated debrief of the annual three-day event. Scholars Weekend is a unique experience for each new class of scholars and an inspirational family reunion for those who have attended one or more times. The 2014 Scholars Weekend at the National Conference Center in Lansdowne, Virginia was no exception.

Jason Stern attended his 10th Scholars Weekend this year and for him, it is always a special event. “The best part of Scholars Weekend for me is always the chance to see old friends (including staff) and to make new ones,” said Stern, who just graduated from George Mason University with a master’s degree in public policy. “I met my wife Caraleigh at Scholars Weekend 2005 and we started dating Scholars Weekend 2006, so the Weekend will always hold a special place in my heart. Besides my lovely wife, I kept coming back because I find each event exceptionally inspirational, educational, and just plain fun.”

Kat Robinson, 2010 Undergraduate Transfer Scholar and chair of the Jack Kent Cooke Scholar Association (JKCSA), could not agree more. “Scholars Weekend is the highlight of my year. In a way it feels like coming home,” said Robinson. “It’s a powerful experience to be just completely welcomed into a group and encouraged to be your total self. Scholars Weekend is a place and time where I feel connected to others who share my commitment to intellectual curiosity, passion for social good, and dedication to our highest ambitions. No goal or dream is too big.”

The event officially kicked off on Thursday, July 31, with a heartfelt video featuring Cooke Scholars and alumni, who took time out of their busy lives, studying and working all over the world, to welcome new and returning students to Scholars Weekend. Following the general welcome session, scholars had a chance to connect with other students in their region through a networking speed meeting.

“My favorite part of Scholars Weekend was meeting the other scholars, especially those who I discovered are attending Columbia with me,” said Pete Marshall, a 2014 Undergraduate Transfer Scholar. “Those connections have already played a vital role in helping me adjust to the new life I’m living. Everything comes down to people, and I have never been around so many amazing people at one time.”

The JKCSA-sponsored “Film Night” on Thursday evening, which featured nearly 20 films written or produced by Cooke Scholars, provided everyone with additional time to network. Friday included an arts and crafts night led by 2006 Graduate Scholar and portrait artist Danny Coeyman, and Saturday was designated as JKCSA Open Mic Night.

“The JKCSA-hosted sessions at the end of each night were a casual place for scholars to come together and be in each other’s company to talk, snack, and get to know one another,” said Robinson.   

Friday morning Young Scholars sharpened their writing skills in a college essay writing workshop in preparation for a whirlwind college and scholarship application season, while new undergraduate scholars learned tips on how to make the most out of their college or Undergraduate Transfer Scholarships. Returning scholars learned about the Foundation’s new initiatives for scholar and alumni engagement and participated in the Ignite Session, which showcased seven scholars who were given five minutes to make a presentation on a topic before coming together by discipline to meet others in their field. Young Scholars engaged in mock admissions interviews with college admissions representatives prior to the annual college and scholarship fair on Friday afternoon, while College Scholars and Undergraduate Transfer Scholars were armed with the resources and information to be successful as they prepare to attend their new schools.

On Friday evening, the Foundation held its annual banquet to commemorate the accomplishments of new and returning scholarship recipients and also to present the Matthew J. Quinn Prize and the Matthew J. Quinn Youth Leadership Award to deserving scholars and alumni for their achievements in public service. Shrochis Karki (2009 Graduate Scholar) and Matthew Loftus (2004 Undergraduate Transfer Scholar; 2007 Graduate Scholar) were awarded the Matthew J. Quinn Prize ($10,000 award) and Sarah Wood (2009 Young Scholar; 2014 College Scholar) was awarded the $2,500 Matthew J. Quinn Youth Leadership Award.

Following dinner, the Cooke Scholars were treated to an evening with New York Times best selling author, Disney’s American Teacher of the Year (2000), Oprah Winfrey’s first “Phenomenal Man” and teacher extraordinaire, Ron Clark. The Scholars Weekend theme of storytelling came alive through the animated and energetic educator who shared his journey as a young man from a small North Carolina town, who left home to go teach in Harlem and eventually went on to establish the Ron Clark Academy in Atlanta, Georgia.

Osei Avril, a 2009 Young Scholar and 2014 College Scholar, who attended the Ron Clark Academy as a middle school student, introduced his former teacher and credited Mr. Clark with instilling his love of learning and teaching him how to give a proper introduction.

Saturday morning started off with another exciting edition of the Cooke Conundrum, a contest that pits teams of scholars against one another in scavenger hunts, words games, and live performances to solve abstract puzzles. After an intense competition with more than 400 fellow scholars and a quick lunch, scholars came together to give back to the Foundation and to those around them. Several scholars participated in a community service project with Mobile Hope, a nonprofit in Loudoun County that was founded in 2011 to help children in need. Scholars organized closets, helped stock shelves, and sorted, folded, and hung clothing to help Mobile Hope better serve its population. Others learned how they can help promote the Jack Kent Cooke Scholarship programs at their old schools, while some provided feedback on how to better serve scholars through mentoring.

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Saturday evening began with the Inspire Me! poster session, which displayed the research, artwork, and creative writing of more than 30 Cooke Scholars. Scholars viewed each of the exhibits and engaged the participants in intense discussion about their projects. The annual talent show, hosted by the JKCSA, followed the Inspire Me! session and showcased the talents of nearly two dozen scholars.

The arrival of Sunday morning signaled that 2014 Scholars Weekend was rapidly coming to an end. In the closing sessions for both the higher education scholars and Young Scholars, shared bittersweet and quirky memories of the weekend event through a Scholars Weekend edition of Mad Libs. Young Scholars were surprised by an exceptionally memorable sendoff in the form of a step routine put on by their educational advisers. Although Scholars Weekend is over, the feelings generated from the weekend will continue to last a lifetime.

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“Scholars can be quirky yet compassionate, opinionated yet caring, brilliant yet humble, and are always some of the most amazing people you will ever meet,” said Stern. “Take advantage of the community, stay in touch, and never forget that you were selected for a reason.”

Although it was only his first Scholars Weekend, Pete Marshall can most definitely understand Stern’s advice.

“Weeks later, words cannot express how I feel about Scholars Weekend,” said Marshall. “I think only hugs, smiles, and handshakes between those who were there are the only way to communicate what that weekend felt like.”