Working for `a better life'

Graduate: A UMBC student receiving his degree today spent his youth homeless and in foster care.

May 20, 2004|By Jason Song | Jason Song,SUN STAFF

Tavon Cooke has never stayed in one place long. He was living with crack users by age 8, on the street by age 10, and with foster families by age 13.

But for the past four years, Cooke has found a home at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Today, he will get his degree in modern languages and linguistics and, not surprisingly, he is not quite sure where he is going next.

"I can't think of a student's story that has had a greater impact on me. It's a symbol that we can find brilliance throughout society," said Freeman A. Hrabowski III, the school's president.

Cooke, 22, modestly shrugs off compliments about the obstacles he has overcome. "I knew education was the only way to make a better life," he says.

Cooke spent his early years in the Liberty Heights area of Baltimore with his parents. His father left when Cooke was 8 and, about a year later, Cooke noticed that his mother wasn't going to her meat-cutting job very much. She eventually admitted to her son that she was a crack addict.

Attempts to contact Cooke's parents were unsuccessful.

Cooke and his mother were evicted shortly afterward and spent several years living with relatives or without anywhere to go. Cooke normally speaks with a joyful inflection, but his voice dropped as he recounted that time. "When [relatives] got tired of us, we'd live in the street," Cooke said.

There were plenty of people living in the streets, mainly drug users who never gave the boy any trouble. But Cooke would wish for a home.

"I would stare at the sunrise and say, `That's very nice,' but sometimes I wanted a place to rest my head," he said.

Cooke's relief was school. He rarely had a chance to wash his clothes, and some students would make fun of his dirty clothes -- even now Cooke says he loves to do laundry and hates to wear white -- but he got a free breakfast and lunch at school. "And I like learning," he said.

Cooke's mother abandoned him when he was 13, and he was placed in foster care. He had two foster families and didn't feel comfortable with either. Cooke left his second foster family when he was 17 years old, and his social worker told him he would probably be placed with a family out of state, something Cooke strongly resisted.

"I felt like I was on the verge of a breakdown," he said.

But his social worker placed him with Challengers Independent Living, a 16-bed group home in Baltimore that helps young adults prepare for living alone.

Cooke's concern about living away from Baltimore carried over to his college choices. He says he scored 1230 on his SATs and received literature from prestigious colleges, including Cornell. But he chose the University of Maryland, Baltimore County because it was close to where he grew up. He also received federal grants and state scholarships.

Close was a relative term. Cooke lives near the Inner Harbor and has to take the bus to school, which can take up to 90 minutes. Sometimes, when he had a lot of work or was on campus late, he slept in the library.

Elaine Rusinko, an associate professor of Russian, was "aghast" when she found out that Cooke was planning to spend the night amid the book stacks. She gave him the keys to her office "just so he could have a little more privacy," she said.

Cooke says he doesn't sleep much, often getting two or three hours a night. "Knowing how important an assignment is will keep me awake," he said.

He took Russian in high school and resumed his studies at UMBC. He even went to St. Petersburg twice, though some people cautioned him not to go. "There aren't a lot [of blacks] in Russia ... especially big ones," Rusinko said. Cooke is over 6 feet tall.

There were some uncomfortable moments, Cooke acknowledges, but he came back speaking nearly fluent Russian and with a laptop computer full of downloaded songs. "He knows more about Russian pop culture than anyone I know," Rusinko said.

Hrabowski said he wants Cooke to get a doctorate. Cooke says he plans to become a social worker. He hopes to open group homes in Russia someday. "I can see the flaws in the system," he said.

But Cooke is aware that no matter how good a social worker he is, he won't be able to help everyone. "I'm not saying you should save the entire world, but you should save enough people to keep the cycle going," he said.

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