ATLANTA, Ga. -- Three Georgia State University Perimeter College students and one recent Perimeter graduate have been selected as semifinalists for the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation Undergraduate Transfer Scholarship.
Amadou Bau, Chad Curtiss, Laura Diaz-Villaquiran and Gillian Gilbert-Wason are among 535 students selected nationwide as semi-finalists from a pool of 2,500 applicants. Final selection of the Cooke Undergraduate Transfer Scholars will be announced in April.
The competitive Jack Kent Cooke scholarship provides funds for chosen recipients to complete their bachelor’s degrees at a four-year college or university and its level of funding often opens the door for recipients to choose universities with tuitions that might be out of reach otherwise.
The foundation offers up to $40,000 per year for up to three years for each of about 40 students selected annually, making the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation Undergraduate Transfer Scholarship the largest private scholarship for two-year and community college transfer students in the country.
Since 2002, 16 Perimeter College students have been selected to receive the national scholarship.
For information about the scholarship, go to www.jkcf.org
Meet Perimeter College’s Jack Kent Cooke Undergraduate Semifinalists:
Amadou Bah’s resume reads like that of a career professional, although the Georgia State University Perimeter College student is only 21.
With his selection as a semifinalist for the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation Undergraduate Transfer Scholarship, Bah has added yet another impressive accomplishment to his name.
News that the Georgia State University Perimeter College student made the cut from among 2,500 national contenders brought Bah to tears.
“When I heard about it, I was really excited,” Bah said. “I ran around looking for my professors.”
He found Dr. Taylor Shapero, and together they celebrated the good news. Shapero is unabashed about her support for the engineering student who in 2013 immigrated to the United States from Mozambique after living in three African countries.
“Amadou Bah is one of the strongest and most deserving students we will see come out of Perimeter College this decade,” Shapero wrote in a scholarship recommendation letter for Bah. She also noted his near-perfect scores in her statics course and his overall 4.0 GPA.
Bah's drive to succeed stems in part from his experiences at an all-boys boarding school in Swaziland, where he received corporal discipline, had to hand-wash his clothes and learn using only the basics.
"Apart from calculators, no form of technology was allowed," he said.
From Swaziland, Bah moved to Mozambique and lived with his aunt before, as a teenager, heading to the United States to reunite with his parents who had immigrated to the United States from Bah's birthplace -- Guinea, West Africa -- more than a decade earlier.
"They felt that the rate at which the country (Guinea) was developing, coupled with political instability, would impact the lifestyle of their children," Bah said.
As a Perimeter College Honors student, Bah has been selected for multiple scholarships and for the Phi Theta Kappa honor society. In January, he made a presentation at the 2018 Joint Mathematics Meeting in San Diego, the largest annual meeting of mathematicians in the world. Bah presented as a team with one student from Georgia Tech and one from Agnes Scott College.
On Perimeter’s Clarkston Campus, Bah is a sought-after math and engineering tutor. He also conducts science, technology, engineering and math workshops and serves as president of Clarkston’s computer/engineering and math clubs.
After graduating from Perimeter College in May, Bah plans to study computer engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Bah realizes his plan may seem a tall order, but he is comfortable with aiming high.
“No one has ever gained anything by thinking small,” he said.
Chad Curtiss’s selection as a semifinalist for the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation Undergraduate Transfer Scholarship came at the right time.
Out of consideration for taking care of his growing family, the 35-year-old Georgia State University Perimeter College student had begun to think about getting his associate degree and then working in real estate — although as a political science student, his passion is public policy.
The prospect of winning the JKC award has inspired him to pursue his bachelor’s and master’s degrees as originally planned.
“It would really take the financial burden off of my family,” he said of possibly winning the Cooke award. “And I could pursue the education and the career I really want.”
Curtiss’s life is reading like a fairy tale these days. He takes Honors courses and will graduate from Perimeter College in May as a Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society member. Weeks later, he and his wife are expecting their second daughter. All this, Curtiss says, is in stark contrast to the challenging childhood he experienced.
“I was raised by dysfunctional parents,” the 35-year-old said. “One dipped out (when I was) 6. One raised me.”
Curtiss says he spent a big part of his childhood caring for his mother, who he says suffered from mental illness. He dropped out of high school in 10th grade, after he says his mom moved them to a South Carolina campground to prepare for Y2K and the end of the world.
When the feared Y2K computer issues and the end of the world didn’t happen, Curtiss says they stayed at several other campgrounds in and around South Carolina, before, at 19, he decided to leave and live on his own.
Curtiss spent some time homeless. He also worked various jobs — once as a party DJ — but never felt satisfied.
One day his wife, Laina, who Curtiss says has a master’s degree and is a public heath analyst, suggested he consider college.
“Honestly, I had never allowed myself to even dream of getting an education. I was always too concerned about the next day or week to even fathom thinking ahead to the next year or decade.”
As an award-winning college student, Curtiss has thrived.
"My mantra that's really helped me kinda keep focused has been 'take every (class) assignment seriously!' " he said.
Curtiss plans to continue his education at Georgia State’s Atlanta Campus and later work in public health to help address the nation’s obesity epidemic.
Recent Georgia State University Perimeter College graduate Laura Diaz-Villaquiran has been accepted to the University of California-Berkeley, where she hopes to study anthropology with a focus on indigenous culture and history.
The Jack Kent Cooke scholarship semi-finalist and 2017 Perimeter College honor graduate says she was inspired to pursue anthropology as her field of study by her art history professor, Fernando Rochaix.
“I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do when I started at Perimeter College,” she said. “Then I took Professor Rochaix’s art history course about pre-Columbian and African art history. He introduced me to a lot of information about indigenous peoples I hadn’t been exposed to before. It was really interesting.”
Some of the information she was learning was about her ancestors.
Diaz-Villaquiran built upon her newfound interest, working part-time as an early education facilitator in a YMCA early childhood education program.
“I was to apply what I learned in school to create more culturally sensitive programs as I worked with underrepresented Latino immigrant children and their caregivers,” she said.
She also curated a film series about indigenous peoples for the Atlanta art and music gallery, Eyedrum.
Diaz-Villaquiran said she took “all the anthropology courses she could,” while at Perimeter, as well as some higher-level courses at Georgia State’s Atlanta Campus when she fulfilled her prerequisites. She graduated from Perimeter College in May 2017.
“Perimeter College had given me the tools to be a better writer and critical thinker, and increased my involvement in my community,” Diaz-Villaquiran said. She also credits Hallie Dowling-Huppert, of the Office of Latino Student Services and Outreach, with helping her hone her scholarship application and identify Berkeley as the best school to continue her studies.
Currently, she’s taking a break from higher education. In October, she gave birth to a daughter and moved to Tampa with her partner. She plans to take her young family to California to begin her studies in the fall.
“Receiving the Jack Kent Cooke scholarship would be an immense help for me,” said Diaz-Villaquiran. “I wouldn’t have to worry about paying for tuition, it would cover all of my expenses — and I love the possibility of studying without having to worry about the financial process.”
Rochaix would like to see Diaz-Villaquiran succeed.
“I can't think of a more deserving student,” Rochaix said. “She was an excellent student, very intuitive and an independent thinker. She cares deeply about social issues and the environment. She brings her life experiences as a refugee in a dedication to work for others in her community."
Gillian Gilbert-Wason tried her hand at different occupations on her road to become a student at Georgia State University’s Perimeter College.
She was an airplane mechanic and is a licensed cosmetologist.
“I tried my hand at many things, but I really struggled at life,” Gilbert-Wason said. “I had a drug problem, and I was in a toxic relationship.”
That relationship caused her to leave her home in Maryland with her infant daughter. She came to Georgia to seek refuge with her mother in 2014, she said.
The change in scenery was good for them both. She also began working at her daughter’s preschool. And she began looking for a way to continue her education.
“I knew I wanted to go back to school and asked a lot of people when I moved here where to go,” she said.
Gilbert-Wason was directed to Perimeter College, where she flourished, taking Honors classes, and getting involved in Phi Theta Kappa, the honor society. (She is now president of the organization.)
She initially studied art, graduating from Perimeter with her associate degree in December 2017. But she realized she wanted more and came back to concentrate on environmental science. That pathway led her to the Native Plant Botanical Garden on the Decatur Campus, where she works part time. Her ultimate goal now is to work in research in environmental science, and she plans to transfer to Georgia State’s Atlanta Campus.
“Going back to school has been very empowering for me,” she said. “The Jack Kent Cooke scholarship would allow me to quit work or drastically reduce my hours, and it would allow me to afford full-time tuition. I have been attending school part time and juggling several jobs to take care of myself and my daughter. My hope is to get through school without having to take out loans. If I can attend school full time, I should be able to complete my degree within two to two-and-half years and enter the work force.”
Gilbert-Wason already has received some support. She recently learned she is the recipient of the Coca-Cola New Century Award. That scholarship provides up to $2,000 toward her education.