Winter 2021 Newsletter

March 10, 2021Receive the Cooke Chronicle in your Inbox: Subscribe here.

This month marks one year since COVID-19 began shuttering campuses and locking down much of the country. That’s one year of grief and anxiety, of financial hardship and academic struggles. As vaccinations make their way into the arms of our most vulnerable, there is reason for hope, but much uncertainty lingers. At the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, we remain humbled by how our Scholars have persevered through it all, navigating the difficulties of social isolation, online learning, and other pandemic challenges to stay on track toward their goals. 

Of course, resilience, grit and commitment to getting the most from their educations is nothing new for our Scholars.

This is evident in Scholars like Santiago Tobar Potes, who came to the United States from Colombia when he was three years old. He is now the first Latino DACA recipient to be awarded the prestigious Rhodes Scholarship. Santiago, who already graduated cum laude from Columbia University, is deferring his Cooke Graduate Scholarship for two years to pursue a master of studies in global and imperial history at Oxford. He plans on later returning to the U.S. for law school.

Then there are Scholars like Bérénice Sylverain, another Columbia University graduate. Bérénice was a Transfer Scholar from De Anza College, a community college in Cupertino, California. Even before attending De Anza, Bérénice was making a name for herself, discussing the curative power of poetry on the soul in a TED Talk. At Columbia, she studied English Literature and Language, working at the university’s Rare Book & Manuscript Library to help generate new scholarship in African American and African Diaspora Studies.

When the Foundation first met Agata Bikovtseva, she was a successful young chess player, earning Gold at the North American Junior in Canada and Gold at the PanAmerican Championships in Mexico, as well as participating in the U.S. Women’s Championship — all before starting college. First a Jack Kent Cooke Young Scholar as a middle schooler, Agata would go on to enroll at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and major in chemistry and biology. Her research focuses on collagen and its role in diseases like brittle bone disease. 

Natalie Gerads, a current Jack Kent Cooke Young Scholar, attends Sauk Rapids-Rice High School in Minnesota. At 14, she started working to create an adaptive playground that promotes play and learning for all people, no matter their physical or cognitive abilities. Last year, Natalie received the Yale Bassett Award for Community Engagement and she is currently in the process of applying for 501(c)3 nonprofit status for the playground. She draws motivation for the project from her step-father, who has light sensitivity issues, and her brother, who suffered a traumatic brain injury in an accident.

Santiago, Bérénice, Agata, and Natalie are just a few of the many Scholars we have been lucky to work with over the years. Their stories and accomplishments — and those of thousands of other Jack Kent Cooke Scholars — continue to give us inspiration as we navigate the challenges of the pandemic and beyond.

Over the past few months, we’ve announced the semifinalists for two of our scholarship programs, and I remain inspired by the persistence and achievements of so many young people across the country. For those of us working in postsecondary education, we bare a great responsibility for ensuring that these young people are still able to access the opportunities that help them reach their full potential in the midst of turbulent times. 

Warm regards, 

Seppy Basili


News For High-Achieving Students

The Wall Street Journal reports that the integration of gifted programs that support exceptionally talented students of color is among the top priorities for incoming New York City schools’ chancellor Meisha Ross Porter, who will begin the job on March 15. Having attended public school in the Bronx herself, Ms. Porter will be the first Black woman to lead the nation’s largest school system adding perspective that her colleagues believe will help address gifted and talented pipeline issues surrounding academically exceptional students who are otherwise overlooked. 

The Hechinger Report recently covered the college admissions challenges, including less facetime with high school counselors, limited capacity of local SAT testing centers, changing family incomes — facing many high-achieving, first-generation and students from low-income backgrounds in the midst of the pandemic. Early college application data from Common App and FAFSA completion data from NCAN suggest that fewer students with financial need are applying this year. However, colleges are using tactics like virtual college fairs to reach families in this time, including students and communities that admissions recruiters wouldn’t have visited in normal years.

In an interview in The Conversation,  Donna Y. Ford, an education professor at The Ohio State University, argues that the number one reason for the underrepresentation of Black students in gifted education is the lack of teacher referrals for highly gifted Black students. Dr. Ford explains that educators play a critical role in identifying and referring students into pipelines for gifted education programs and services, and encourages districts, educators, and families to work together to ensure talented students aren’t overlooked. 

Cooke Foundation Highlights

2018 Jack Kent Cooke Scholar, Vinny Wagner, was recently highlighted in Princeton Alum News for his unique and non-traditional college success story. Wagner, who is a first-generation immigrant from Brazil, began at Palm Beach State community college and is now a computer-science major and currently building cybersecurity consumer products. 

Jack Kent Cooke Undergraduate Transfer Scholar Jennifer Tolliver created the Florida Tech Reads outreach program, designed to address the needs of the visually impaired, young readers, and English as second language learners. The program partners with FIT Honors College to provide volunteers to read and record the audiobooks. Jennifer will be presenting on the initiative at the upcoming Florida Collegiate Honors Council conference.

What We’re Reading

The Seattle Times- Ed Lab Live: Highline educators share the ‘acceleration’ approach to helping all kids get ahead (02/23/21) 

The New York Times- A College Admissions Rat Race (02/24/21)

NPR – New Morehouse College Program Encourages Black Men To Complete Unfinished Degrees (02/25/21) 

Inside Higher Ed – Common App Adds Questions for Trans Students (03/01/21)