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Santa Monica College Student Wins National Transfer Scholarship

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By Lookout Staff

May 6, 2015 -- When other boys his age were playing superheroes, Jonah Okike-Hephzibah dreamed of inventing things.

Taking apart old electronic gear and putting it back together was his favorite pastime.

“When I was a boy, I dreamed about creating a super ‘geeked-out’ driverless car, with a robot-butler that takes care of everything,” said Okike-Hephzibah, who is now a pre-engineering major at Santa Monica College. “As a kid, I loved engineering -- I just didn’t know what it was.”

After a few rough starts, Okike-Hephzibah is now well on his way toward his goal of majoring in robotics after winning the prestigious Jack Kent Cooke Foundation Undergraduate Transfer Scholarship.

Okike-Hephzibah was one of 90 community college students chosen from 2,061 applicants representing 540 community colleges nationwide, said SMC spokeswoman Grace Smith. He will receive up to $40,000 a year for up to three years towards his undergraduate education.

Okike-Hephzibah has already been accepted into the University of Michigan, but he’s  waiting to hear back from Stanford University, Columbia University, Cornell University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) before making his final choice, said Smith.

“Jonah embodies what SMC strives for -- excellence with responsibility,” said SMC President Dr. Chui L. Tsang. “Here is a young man motivated by deep love for his family, who is willing to work hard to fulfill his own dreams. With students like Jonah, the world will truly be a better place.”

It wasn’t always a clear pathway for Okike-Hephzibah, who took on the role of head of household while still in high school when his parents divorced. He briefly considered becoming a professional basketball player to support his mother and five younger siblings, but later dropped the idea.

For a while, Okike-Hephzibah struggled to find his way, until he enrolled in business and computer science courses at SMC. A year later, his counselor referred him to the college’s Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) program. 

STEM offers tailored academic support and research opportunities to under-represented students entering science and math-related fields, said Smith.

“Jonah is a strong role model at Santa Monica College,” said Melanie Bocanegra, associate dean of STEM and Student Equity, who recommended Okike-Hephzibah for the scholarship. “He is engaging, accomplished, and most importantly, approaches his work with a determination that is truly inspiring.”

Okike-Hephzibah is the fourth SMC student in the past five years to win a Jack Kent Cook Foundation transfer scholarship, said Transfer Center Faculty Leader Dan Nannini.

“The Cooke Foundation is proud to be one of the few organizations that focuses on high-performing community college transfer students with financial need by providing the largest private scholarships to this population of students,” said Foundation Executive Director Harold O. Levy.

“We do this not only because of the lack of scholarships available for them but also because they bring so much to their four-year campuses -- performing as well if not better than the students who started at those institutions as freshmen.”

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