Jack Kent Cooke Scholarship Recipients: Where Are They Now?

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: Jack Kent Cooke Scholarship made lasting impact on recipients of the prestigious national award.

Jack Kent Cooke Scholarship made lasting impact on recipients of the prestigious national award.



by Rebecca Rakoczy




That is how Georgia Perimeter College students who received the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation Undergraduate Transfer Scholarship describe the award that brought their dreams of college and career into reach. The prestigious national scholarship provides students up to $40,000 per year for undergraduate education.


Fourteen GPC students have received the scholarship since it was first awarded in 2002—the third largest number of students at any college in the country. These students persevered despite personal adversity and went on to distinguish themselves at top colleges and universities in Georgia and across the nation. They pursued a wide range of interests, from nursing to engineering to international relations. They became specialists in tree conservation or software. Because many of them were the first in their families to earn a college degree, they also set a new precedent for those who followed.


We’ve caught up with some of our Cooke Scholars to find out how the scholarship—and GPC—impacted their lives.


See video then read about the Jack Kent Cooke Scholarship recipients and what they’ve accomplished:


Jack Kent Cooke Recipients speak from Suzie Amsberry on Vimeo.



David Dechant, GPC’s first Jack Kent Cooke Scholar, is a consulting arborist and soil scientist for Arborguard Tree Specialists. Among his clients is the Atlanta Botanical Garden. (Photo by Bill Roa)

David Dechant, GPC’s first Jack Kent Cooke Scholar, is a consulting arborist and soil scientist for Arborguard Tree Specialists. Among his clients is the Atlanta Botanical Garden. (Photo by Bill Roa)

David Dechant – 2002


In 2002, David Dechant became Georgia Perimeter College’s first Jack Kent Cooke Foundation Undergraduate Transfer Scholar.


Now a consulting arborist and soil scientist for Arborguard Tree Specialists in Atlanta, the 59-year-old Dechant has helped conserve the health of some of Georgia’s most venerable hardwood trees, while construction projects moved tons of earth around them.


Among the projects in which he participated is the Atlanta Botanical Garden canopy walk, an aerial engineering feat that loops over the old growth forest of the gardens. He also has managed the health of the live oak trees during the construction of Jekyll Island’s new hotel and convention center.


Dechant says the guidance of GPC faculty and staff helped him move in the right direction in his life and career.


“Ron Shaw was my guidance counselor, and Lynn Ziegler was my geology professor.  When I started looking at different career choices, I knew I had limited options because I had minimal mathematics ability. But being a scientist was a childhood dream.”


Shaw suggested geology, and Ziegler further encouraged his love for earth sciences, he says. “Her encouragement really got the ball rolling in my career.”


Armed with an associate degree in geology from GPC, he went on to the University of Georgia to study environmental soil science, graduating cum laude from UGA. “And this, from a student who started at GPC with a 2.33 GPA,” he says.


He says he constantly uses his background in geology and soil conservation for work. “I have the rare opportunity to use my degree almost every day.”


Dechant remains grateful for the opportunities made possible by the Jack Kent Cooke award.


“When I made the decision that I was going to transfer to UGA and pursue a degree in soil science, my wife Julie and I had no idea how we were going to finance it. The Jack Kent Cooke Scholarship was a miracle for us. I believe the take-home message here is to never let go of your dreams.”



A cardiac surgical nurse at Emory University Hospital, Sara Drum says the college “gave me the confidence that I could truly achieve any change in the world I intended to—or at least put a great dent into problems I am passionate about.” (Photo by Bill Roa)

A cardiac surgical nurse at Emory University Hospital, Sara Drum says the college “gave me the confidence that I could truly achieve any change in the world I intended to—or at least put a great dent into problems I am passionate about.”
(Photo by Bill Roa)

Sara Drum – 2003


Sara Drum, a cardiac surgical unit nurse at Emory University Hospital, received the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation Undergraduate Transfer Scholarship in 2003 and the Jack Kent Cooke Continuing Graduate Scholarship Program in 2006, allowing her to attend Emory University for her bachelor’s and master’s degrees.


Though she has a master’s in nursing and public health, she chose a position as a registered nurse to give her the flexibility to run the nonprofit dog rescue she founded five years ago.


“I work with the high-intake, high-kill shelters, scooping dogs off death row and helping with community needs, such as keeping dogs in homes when the only obstacle is food and minor medical needs.” She estimates she has saved 1,000 animals from euthanasia.


“Health care for humans and animals is my great passion. I wake up every morning ecstatic as to what the day will hold—I am very grateful for the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation and opportunities that GPC provided,” Drum says. “I remember the academic excellence expected by the instructors and the lengths they went to, ensuring the students had the tools they needed. I received great kindness, consideration and respect in all my encounters.”


“Attending Emory University was a dream I thought would never be achieved due to financial considerations,” Drum says. “My life has been a whirlwind of delight from the time I enrolled in GPC until now. My expectations are that it will only get better.”


“Engaging my mind in academic pursuits gave me the confidence that I could truly achieve any change in the world I intended to—or at least put a great dent into problems I am passionate about,” she says. “ … There are no words that can describe my overall feeling of gratitude for the difference GPC, the Jack Kent Cooke Scholarship and Emory University have made in my life.”



Fernando Escalona and his mother

Fernando Escalona and his mother – ’05


Fernando Escalona – 2005


Fernando Escalona won the 2005 Jack Kent Cooke Foundation Undergraduate Transfer Scholarswhip and entered Emory University the same year.


“Fernando was one of the most articulate and productive History and Politics Club presidents in our 15 years as a club,” says Bob King, GPC history professor and faculty advisor to the Clarkston HaP Club. Escalona was one of just 25 young men and women selected nationwide for the scholarship in 2005.


When he first came to GPC from Spain, Escalona was “embarrassed” by his limited ability to speak English, he said later. That changed at GPC, as he honed his language skills and gained confidence in his studies. He earned a 3.88 GPA, winning honors in math and history before he graduated with an associate degree in history.


“The reward was in the effort itself,” he said. “Such is the magic of learning.”


Escalona was a member of the All-USA Academic Team and was inducted into the Phi Theta Kappa honor society.



Teveria Parks and Ted Wadley – ‘06

Teveria Parks and Ted Wadley – ’06


Teveria Parks – 2006


Teveria Parks still recalls “the wonderful and insightful instructors” at Georgia Perimeter College.


The 2006 Jack Kent Cooke Scholar and Agnes Scott College graduate is now a testing specialist at Gwinnett Technical College, supervising the Assessment Center Certification lab and managing and evaluating the Assessment Center revenue and daily processes.


Parks says she is especially grateful for the guidance of Georgia Perimeter instructor Ted Wadley, who taught her Honors English.


“There is a time in a person’s life when she is blessed with the presence of someone who helps her to see the artistic splendor of ordinary life and see beyond the present limitations to endless possibilities of what she can be,” Parks says. “Mr. Ted Wadley was that person for me. As a result of hard work and his profound support, I became the recipient of the esteemed Jack Kent Cooke Scholarship.”


Parks says Wadley not only believed in her, “I am more grateful he taught me to believe in myself!”


At an early age, Parks lost a sister, her mother suffered serious health issues, and her father was paralyzed in an accident. Despite her personal adversity, she maintained a 3.87 GPA, actively volunteered with Amnesty International and at local nursing homes and mentored and tutored children in after-school programs.


The Jack Kent Cooke Foundation Undergraduate Transfer Scholarship allowed Parks to realize a major ambition. “It has always been a dream of mine to attend a prestigious college that encourages freethinking, excellence and self-empowerment,” says Parks. “Agnes Scott is definitely that type of college. The Jack Kent Cooke Scholarship changed my life by affording me the opportunity to learn from women who are brilliant, impactful and inspiring.”



Hamilton Cunningham - ‘07

Hamilton Cunningham – ’07


Hamilton Cunningham – 2007


Hamilton Cunningham was Georgia Perimeter College’s fifth Jack Kent Cooke Foundation Undergraduate Transfer Scholar.
The award allowed Cunningham to attend Howard University in Washington, D.C., where he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in economics. While at Howard, he also won the prestigious national Truman Scholarship, which provides up to $30,000 toward graduate school for students committed to working in public service.


Cunningham’s academic success in college contrasts with his earlier years in school. As a teen, he didn’t think school was for him. He was more interested in playing the trumpet than studying, he said later. So, he dropped out of high school, but eventually earned his GED through a program for at-risk youth. He then joined the U.S. Air Force and worked as an aircraft weapons loader for two years.


Cunningham left the military and came to Georgia Perimeter to continue his education. The music major’s first college course was algebra, which also was his first math class in years. He felt lost and was hoping he could make it out with a D. His GPC professor, however, told him to aim higher. With his professor’s support, extra tutoring and a lot of hard work, Cunningham earned a B in algebra.


That was the beginning of his success at GPC. Cunningham won the Outstanding Freshman Music Student award and the Lewis Belcher Jr. Leadership Award. He was active in the Leadership Academy and began volunteering for Refugee Family Services in Stone Mountain.


Cunningham credits the support he received at GPC for changing his life. “The GPC faculty believed in me more than I did when I first got there,” he said.




Victoria White (center) – ‘09

Victoria White (center) – ’09


Victoria White – 2009


Victoria “Tory” White received the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation Undergraduate Transfer Scholarship in 2009 and says she is deeply grateful for the scholarship and the opportunity to graduate from Emory University in 2014. Now Victoria White Spears, she is married and stays home with her young children.


“The Jack Kent Cooke Scholarship allowed me to transfer to and graduate from Emory, which was an amazing and invaluable experience. I always love being in a position to give GPC the credit it deserves for allowing me to achieve so much,” she says.


While at GPC, White started out in learning support math, but quickly mastered the material. By 2009, when she transferred from GPC, she was recognized as the collegewide Regents Outstanding Scholar and as the recipient of the Outstanding Student Award for Science. White also was selected as a member of Phi Theta Kappa’s Coca-Cola All-State Academic Team, for which she received a scholarship.


In his recommendation of White to Emory, Dr. Jeff Portnoy, GPC’s Honors Program coordinator, included letters from two faculty members: English professor Dr. Rosemary Cox and history professor Dr. Tom Graham.


“Ms. White’s scholastic aptitude puts her in the top 1 percent of her class,” Cox wrote. “From essay tests to oral presentations, her performance in class reflects not only mastery of the material but insight into the universal principles underlying the works under discussion.”


“Her high level of intelligence is obvious; however, that is not what makes her the dream student she is,” wrote Graham. “It is her level of intensity to complete any task to the nth degree of perfection. Besides a fine mind and work ethic, Ms. White has a warm personality and gentle spirit that informs not only her desire to tutor her fellow students but to help creatures in need. She has dedicated hours and hours each semester to tutoring her fellow GPC students in a variety of subjects, including mathematics, astronomy, writing and literature, history and film. In her spare time, she is a one-woman operation for rescuing and adopting animals that are injured, lost or abandoned. Her community recognizes her as ‘the animal girl.’ ”




Chiemeka Ugochukwu - 11 and Ted Wadley

Chiemeka Ugochukwu and Ted Wadley – ’11


Chiemeka Ugochukwu – 2011


“The Jack Kent Cooke Foundation Undergraduate Transfer Scholarship has always been one of the good fortunes that happened in my life that I will always be grateful for. I honestly don’t know where I would be without the scholarship,” says Chiemeka “Richard” Ugochukwu, who came to GPC as an international student from Nigeria.


Ugochukwu recently graduated from the University of Georgia and now attends UGA’s School of Pharmacy. He wants to combine a degree as a doctor of pharmacy with a master’s in public health.


“I am hoping the knowledge I gain through these programs will help me think of new ways and ideas to tackle the issue of substandard health care in Nigeria and other underserved populations,” he says.


Ugochukwu remembers the relationships and long-term friendships he built at Georgia Perimeter. “I remember that most of the professors at GPC saw potential in their students and were very eager to impart knowledge to anyone who would respectfully listen,” he says. “I was lucky to have recognized that early enough in my time at GPC, and was able to succeed at GPC because of that. And I continue to be grateful for the path the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation has helped me to carve, and I keep working harder to succeed in life.”




Huong Vu - ‘12

Huong Vu – ’12


Huong Vu – 2012


Huong Vu, a software consultant with EPI-USE America and a graduate of Georgia Institute of Technology, was one of two GPC students who received the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation Undergraduate Transfer Scholarship in 2012. She works with her firm’s clients to implement software and create training manuals.


Vu studied business administration and mathematics while at GPC, tutored other students and was active in the Math Club and Orientation Club. She recalls how her professors encouraged her to become involved in campus life.


“I will never forget how supportive the professors were and how fun the school activities were at GPC, “ Vu says, “I particularly remember my English professor, Mary Helen O’Connor and my accounting professor, Bruce Fitzgerald. They truly care for students, and I really appreciate their dedication and devotion.”


“Without the Jack Kent Cooke Scholarship, I would not have been able to go to Georgia Tech.” she says. “The scholarship has changed my view about life and supported me to continue to pursue my education.”


Vu is now researching graduate schools and plans to pursue her master’s degree.



Kadiata Sy - ‘12

Kadiata Sy – ’12


Kadiata  Sy – 2012


Kadiata “Kadi” Sy is studying Middle Eastern and Central Asian Security Studies at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.
The 2012 Jack Kent Cooke Foundation Undergraduate Transfer Scholar graduated from Emory University in May 2015, majoring in political science and Middle Eastern studies, with a focus on Islamic law. She was awarded Emory’s prestigious Robert T. Jones Jr. Scholarship, commonly known as the Bobby Jones Scholarship, to attend the Edinburgh college for the 2015-2016 year.


The first in her family to obtain a college education, Sy was born into a refugee camp in Senegal, where her family lived after war broke out between Senegal and the family’s native country of Mauritania. When her family finally settled in Atlanta, Sy was 11: she had received no formal education and knew no English.


She learned quickly. By high school, she was placed in Advanced Placement courses. Sy came to Georgia Perimeter College thinking she would take a few courses and then transfer. Instead, she excelled and completed two associate degrees—one in political science and one in philosophy. “Once I was on campus, I saw this was a great place and decided to stay,” Sy says.
While at GPC, Sy expressed an interest in becoming a human rights attorney. More recently, she says she wants to work in the areas of diplomacy and peace building.


The summer before attending Emory, Sy volunteered in Ghana for two weeks. She wrote about her experience in an Emory Muslim student blog: “I learned a lot about the global community and my role in it. After finishing my first semester at Emory, I was selected as an American student ambassador to Saudi Arabia by the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations. My experience in Saudi Arabia increased my interest in the Middle East and a desire to do diplomacy work.”




Adhithya Rajasekaran - ‘13

Adhithya Rajasekaran – ’13


Adhithya Rajasekaran – 2013


Adhithya Rajasekaran spent the summer as a software engineering intern for Cardlytics, an Atlanta software firm. An engineering student at Georgia Tech, Rajasekaran says “it would have been impossible for me to continue my education beyond my associate degree if I hadn’t received the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation Undergraduate Transfer Scholarship.”


“As a non-U.S. national resident, I was not eligible for financial aid from any college,” he says.


“Words cannot describe how grateful I am to the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation for awarding me the scholarship,” Rajasekaran says. “It has changed my life for the best. I have been able to create long-lasting friendships with other Jack Kent Cooke Scholars from around the country. I have intellectual discussions with other Cooke Scholars … . Many of those discussions forced me to rethink my positions/opinions on a wide variety of issues … . I would say that I have become a better person because of receiving this scholarship.”


“Some of my best memories were from the Honors classes I took at GPC,” Rajasekaran says. “I was involved in a lot of lively discussions. Even though I am not a U.S. citizen, a lot of my fellow students were very interested in what I had to say about the U.S. economy, U.S. history and other topics.”


He credits his humanities instructor, Deborah Byrd, and Dr. Salli Vargis as “very important to me at GPC. Without Mrs. Byrd, I wouldn’t have known about the Jack Kent Cooke Scholarship, and Dr. Vargis invited me to the Honors Program and served as an advisor and mentor throughout my stay at GPC.”


This year, Rajasekaran also received the Jack Kent Cooke Continuing Graduate Scholarship. He plans to graduate from Georgia Tech in December 2015 and then pursue his master’s degree there.




Trung Quach - ‘14

Trung Quach -’14


Trung Quach – ‘14


Trung Quach says when he came to Georgia Perimeter College in 2011 from Vietnam, he was so shy, he could barely say a word in class. That changed dramatically.


By the time he graduated with an associate degree in 2014, Quach had gained leadership skills from years as a tutor at GPC and the support and encouragement of his professors and fellow students.


“I learned a lot from my GPC professors, as they’re all awesome,” says Quach, now a biochemistry major at Georgia Tech. He credits his GPC biology professor, Dr. Jonathan Lochamy, with “showing me how awesome and fun research could be,” and his chemistry professor, Dr. Michael Nelson, with giving him “lots of advice” toward his career goals.


During the summer, Quach participated in Georgia Tech research involving heme, “a prosthetic group of proteins that perform diverse functions, such as oxygen transport, oxidative metabolism and a lot of important functions.” He plans to graduate in Spring 2016.


“Without the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation Undergraduate Transfer Scholarship, it would nearly be impossible for me to go to Tech, as the tuition is about five times more than GPC,” Quach says. “But not only did the scholarship lower the [financial] burden on my shoulders, it also gives me confidence and support. Jack Kent Cooke believed in [students like] me. The staff at the foundation and my fellow Cooke Scholars believe in me. And the scholar network (past and present Jack Kent Cooke Scholars) is phenomenal.”


“All I can say is that it is not only a scholarship; it is a life-changing opportunity. I can say that now I can dream big, because now I know that if you dream big and work hard towards your goal, you can reach it, and then, reach even higher.”




Matthew Tate - ‘14 (left)

Matthew Tate – ’14 (left)


Matthew Tate – 2014


Matthew Tate, one of two Georgia Perimeter College students to receive the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation Undergraduate Transfer Scholarship in 2014, is an engineering major at Georgia Tech.


“I am currently in an internship for a company that creates solar-powered media presentation systems for missionaries in remote areas,” he says.


While at GPC, Tate juggled a job and his studies for three years. He remembers many teachers he enjoyed, “but the most influential professor for me was [Dr.] Salli Vargis,” he says.


“She is a history professor and Honors Program coordinator (at Newton Campus). I first met her when I joined Phi Theta Kappa [honor society],” Tate says. “She was very encouraging and helped push me to excel academically. She also played an integral role in helping me win the Jack Kent Cooke Scholarship and also the (Georgia) Regents Outstanding Scholar Award.”


Tate says there was “no way I could afford to go to Georgia Tech without this scholarship.”


“In my life I have seen debt destroy many relationships and families,” he says. “So I probably would have chosen to stop going to college before going into debt. Receiving this scholarship has enabled me to go to college without going into debt and [to] be the first person in my immediate family to graduate from college.”


Tate is on track to graduate from Georgia Tech with honors in Spring 2016. He and his wife recently became parents of a little girl.




Jack Kent Cooke Scholar Rozhin Parvaresh works with her biology professor, Dr. Seyed Hosseini. (Photo by Bill Roa)

Jack Kent Cooke Scholar Rozhin Parvaresh works with her biology professor, Dr. Seyed Hosseini. (Photo by Bill Roa)

Rozhin Parvaresh – 2015


As one of two 2015 Jack Kent Cooke Scholars, Rozhin Parvaresh is still astounded that she won an award that will allow her to go to Georgia Tech, where she plans to pursue a degree in petro-chemical engineering.


An Iranian native, her career would have been blocked in her country, she says. “In Iran, girls are not allowed to major in fields like engineering.”


But her parents knew her potential. “My dad studied in the U.S. and got his degree here. He said, ‘if you get a degree in the U.S., you have more opportunities in the world.’”


When she first came to Georgia Perimeter College, Parvaresh excelled in math, but spoke little English. Determined to learn, she studied books and watched TV to learn the language. Her tenacity impressed Dr. Jay Dunn, a GPC Dunwoody astronomy professor.


“The first time I met Rozhin, she was working cutting sandwiches at the Campus Café,” he says. “I saw she had a system of cutting the sandwiches—I told her she was cutting sandwiches with the precision of an engineer—and asked her if she considered studying engineering.”


That conversation with Dunn encouraged her, Parvaresh says. “The next semester, she enrolled in Dunn’s physics courses and never looked back.


“I am going to miss this place,” Parvaresh says. “I’ve been here for three years, and it’s been an honor—my professors and the students I’ve met have had a real impact on my life.”




Yitbarek Kazentet - ‘15

Yitbarek Kazentet – ’15


Yitbarek Kazentet – 2015


Yitbarek Kazentet was stunned when he first heard he had received the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation Undergraduate Transfer Scholarship. The Georgia Perimeter College Clarkston engineering student and Ethiopian native had worked up to three jobs to live and help put himself through school. Sometimes he would nod off in class because he was so tired.


Thanks to the scholarship, Kazentet is on his way, following his dreams of becoming an engineer. He recently completed a summer research stint in optics at the University of Arizona, and is now at the University of Southern California to pursue a degree in petroleum engineering.


Kazentet credits the support of his GPC professors and his fellow students in the Math, Engineering and Science Achievement lab for helping him to adjust to life in the United States and to succeed in college.


An honor student carrying a 3.9 GPA, Kazentet was accepted into several prominent universities, but the tuition was still daunting. The scholarship provided him more options—and fewer roadblocks.


“This scholarship means more pressure and more responsibility for me,” Kazentet says. “I have no excuses, and I can’t fail.”



Jack Kent Cooke

Jack Kent Cooke


Jack Kent Cooke Understood the Dream of College


Jack Kent Cooke planned to go to college and had secured a hockey scholarship to help pay the way. Then the Great Depression hit, and college was no longer an option for the Canada native.


Cooke instead became a door-to-door encyclopedia salesman. “He worked and supported his family,” says Dana O’Neill, executive director of the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation.


Despite his early struggles, Cooke became an extremely successful businessman and eventually an owner of the Washington Redskins NFL team. But he remembered those early days, when he couldn’t go to college.


Upon his death in 1997, he left money to establish the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, which created the Jack Kent Cooke Scholarship. The now $40,000 per year scholarship would be awarded to low-income but high-achieving students who, due to financial circumstances, could not go to college, she said. The foundation, based in Lansdowne, Va., also has established other scholarships, including ones for graduate students pursuing post-baccalaureate degrees and for high school students.


“The foundation was established in 2000, and that first group of young scholars was selected in 2002,” says O’Neill. Potential scholars are required to have a 3.5 or higher GPA. They can be a community college sophomore or have graduated within the past five years from a community college. “They must show not only academic rigor in their course load, but also leadership in the college,” she said.


In 2015, 90 community college students received the scholarship nationwide; GPC students Yitbarek Kazentet and Rozhin Parvaresh were among that group, making them GPC’s 13th and 14th Cooke Scholars, respectively.


Georgia Perimeter ranks No. 3 in the nation for the number of Cooke Scholars it has produced. “This is an award that really has a great impact,” O’Neill said.


To find out more about the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation and the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation Undergraduate Transfer Scholarship, visit  jkcf.org


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