Very American stories

May 13, 2002

LIKE SO MANY of the world's talented before them, Fasika and Tinsay Woreta's parents left Ethiopia for the United States for a better life - and better educational opportunities. The twin girls were just 1 year old when their father, a doctor, entered a master's program on his way to being allowed to practice here. At one point, their mother, a nurse, held down three low-level jobs to support eight people in their extended family, before studying to become a nurse here.

As the girls grew, education remained the family's focus. Reading was everything. They were allowed to watch TV only on Friday nights. An older brother became a NASA engineer. An older sister is in medical school. The twins, now 22, racked up stellar academic records in Howard County and at the University of Maryland, College Park (only one "B" in four years) and are bound for medical school at Johns Hopkins this fall.

And punctuating this very American story, both recently were among the first group of 50 college seniors with ties to this region who were awarded the most generous graduate-study scholarships in the country.

The $50,000-a-year awards - as much as $300,000 over six years - came from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation of Northern Virginia. The irascible Mr. Cooke, who died in 1997, was best known for owning the Washington Redskins and for his marital woes. During his life, he was not philanthropic. But the focus of his foundation -identifying and supporting promising talent - is consistent with his life story, also a very American tale.

A Canadian by birth, Mr. Cooke dropped out of school during the Depression to sell encyclopedias, going on to build a fortune here through real estate, newspapers and sports. His estate, largely the football team, was worth more than $800 million, with more than $500 million going to his foundation. Longtime associates say that for all his success, he always regretted not having more education. He was a voracious reader, they say, who loved finding and mentoring talented colleagues.

In backing the entire cost of graduate study for certain highly gifted students, foundation officers hope to emulate Mr. Cooke's success at shrewd business risks, ones that might not pay off but that also might just change the world. At the very least, the size of these awards frees such students as the Woreta twins, who might otherwise leave medical school constrained for years by huge debts, to focus on public service - like their goals of working on the worldwide AIDS problem and in inner cities.

In approach and scale, nothing anywhere else matches this gamble on talent, and it gets better: The foundation later this year plans to begin identifying, mentoring and financially supporting exceptionally promising ninth-graders, long-shot commitments that could last more than a decade - through high school, college and graduate study.

Only in America.

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