Grad students hit jackpot with Cooke scholarships

18 Marylanders among first 50 chosen for awards

up to $50,000 a year

May 02, 2002|By Alec MacGillis | Alec MacGillis,SUN STAFF

For 18 state residents -- including a 19-year-old going to law school, a former secretary headed to graduate school to study English, and Ellicott City twins going to medical school -- it is the academic equivalent of winning the lottery.

The Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, created two years ago from the estate of the late Washington Redskins owner, announced yesterday that 50 students will receive up to $50,000 a year toward their graduate studies under the foundation's new scholarship program -- the most generous such award in the nation.

"I got off the phone with them and just stood in the kitchen and cried, and I was just glad I could hold it in that long," said Lisa Lettau, 33, of Baltimore, a former secretary who will graduate from Towson University this month and plans to get her doctorate in English at the Johns Hopkins University. "Then I called my husband at work and pulled him out of a meeting to tell him."

The money will allow Lettau to focus on graduate school and caring for her 3-year-old daughter without having to hold a job, as she did when she went to community college before Towson.

That's the idea behind the scholarships, said Matthew J. Quinn, the foundation's executive director. The scholarships are meant to open up opportunities for talented students at a time when public funding for graduate studies is on the decline, he said.

"These [students] have great potential, and a lot of them want to go into public service and help others, but they have to look at the possibility of coming out of graduate school with $100,000 in debt," he said. "We figured, let's find a way to make graduate school possible so they don't have to worry about debt and can go into the fields they want to go into."

To qualify for the funds, students had to be residents of Maryland, Virginia or Washington, or attending colleges or planning to attend graduate school in one of those areas. There were 675 applicants.

The awards are intended to cover all of the students' tuition and living expenses while in graduate school, for a period of up to six years, with a maximum total award of $300,000. Joel Massell, executive director of the Chicago-based National Scholarship Providers Association, said he knows of no other national awards as large.

The foundation sought as broad an array of recipients as possible. They include a Naval Academy midshipman, a University of Maryland, College Park violinist and a 51-year-old Vietnam veteran planning to study creative writing.

Six recipients are College Park students, including Fasika and Tinsey Woreta, identical twins from Ellicott City whose parents are a doctor and nurse from Ethiopia and who will attend medical school at Hopkins. Tinsey Woreta told the foundation she hoped to practice medicine in the inner city, while her sister said she hopes to use her "skills in medicine to provide health care for people living in ... impoverished areas all over the world."

Eight recipients are Hopkins undergraduates, including Tara Johnson of Kingsville, who is getting a double degree in biomedical engineering and musical performance; she will also attend medical school at Hopkins.

The youngest recipient is Ian Stucky, who will graduate this month as the University of Maryland, Baltimore County's valedictorian -- at age 19. Stucky, who hails from Owings Mills and is a champion Division I diver, will attend William and Mary Law School.

"It's absolutely amazing. I had gotten my financial aid letter the day before and had been totally depressed when I saw I was going to have to take out $100,000 in loans," he said. "Then the Cooke people called, and I heard the word congratulations, and I forgot what was said after that. It's an incredibly generous award."

Quinn said the foundation, which has more than $500 million in assets, is expected to announce new scholarship programs for younger students soon. He also said he expects the foundation to be deluged with graduate applications for the graduate funds next year when more students know about the program.

"I bet we'll get close to 2,000," he said. "I'm sure the recipients will tell all their friends."

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