A Cal Poly Pomona alumnus has been awarded a Jack Kent Cooke Foundation graduate scholarship, only the third ever earned by a CSU student.
Diego Urrego, who graduated in 2008 with an architecture degree, will use the scholarship for his studies at Columbia University in New York, where he is pursuing a master's in advanced architectural design.
The foundation received about 1,000 nominations for 30 graduate scholarships, which are each worth up to $300,000 over six years. The awards recognize outstanding students who exhibit a strong will to succeed and demonstrate financial need. Applicants must be nominated by the foundation faculty representative at their school and may not apply on their own.
“There are lots of scholarships named after people, but when a student gets this one, it puts the student and the campus in an elite club,” says Dorothy Fleck, former associate director of the Keith & Jean Kellogg Honors College at Cal Poly Pomona.
Urrego, who left Cal Poly Pomona with a 3.55 grade-point average and a resume replete with honors, says he was “extremely shocked” to get the phone call last month JUNE notifying him that he had been awarded the Cooke Foundation scholarship.
The shock may be that Urrego was in a position to even be considered.
He arrived in Orange County from Colombia as a young boy, unable to speak English. His mother, a single parent, scrambled to make a living, taking whatever jobs she could get.
“I remember her waking up at 2 or 3 to deliver the paper,” Urrego recalls. “I would always see people around me struggling — we did as well — and seeing this made me realize how important an education was. That is the big reason she brought me to the U.S. In Colombia, you don't get those opportunities. You see bright individuals, with high levels of education, unable to use their talents to succeed.”
He changed schools nine times between 1st and 12th grade. “We moved so many times, I can't recall exactly where we lived,” he says. For a while, he stayed with his extended family after his mother returned to Colombia. Still, he managed to graduate from Loara High School in Anaheim with honors.
“I've always tried to give my hardest at whatever it was I'm doing. I wasn't always the best, but I tried my best,” he says.
Along the way, Urrego helped support himself doing electrical work for his uncle and considered becoming an electrician. “It's a really interesting field,” he says, “but at the level that I was doing it — digging trenches and working 10- to 12-hour shifts — it's hard work. At that point I realized I needed to further my education.”
He enrolled at Santa Ana College, where he graduated with honors, and then attended Orange Coast College to study architecture. The next move, to Cal Poly Pomona, he says, was an easy call.
“The work I saw coming out of [the architecture program] was good, and Cal Poly was financially within reach. You're getting a great education at a fraction of the cost.”
With the Cooke scholarship, cost will not be a factor at Columbia.
“There are some amazing people here — professors, students. I am surrounded by people with amazing talent and expertise. They offer so many great opportunities to learn.”