“Oh my gosh,” gasped Brandy Rodriquez as she opened a letter. She ran to her mother, hugging her and saying, “Mom, I got the scholarship!”
Rodriguez from Edinburg, Texas, had just found out that she was one of 150 high school seniors selected this year to receive a $20,000 Coca‑Cola Scholars Program scholarship.
“[Texas] A&M has always been my dream school. And now I have the means to get there," she added. "I’ll get my bachelor’s in biomedical science, go to PA school, and I want to stay here in the [Rio Grande] Valley, where my roots are. I’m going to break our cycle of poverty that I had growing up.”
This year, 200,000 students started an application to be a Coca‑Cola Scholar. Just over 95,000 submitted applications, and after several stages of selection, only 150 were chosen to receive this prestigious scholarship. Coke Scholars not only excel in academics, but they also lead through service and drive real, positive change in their communities.
A joint effort of Coca‑Cola bottlers across the United States and The Coca Cola Company, the Coca Cola Scholars Program is one of the largest corporate-sponsored, achievement-based scholarship programs of its kind. With the addition of the 2019 class, the Coca‑Cola Scholars Foundation will have provided more than 6,150 Coke Scholars nationwide with over $69 million in scholarships over the course of 31 years. The 31st class of Scholars alone will collectively be awarded $3.1 million in scholarships.
“We believe that identifying these young leaders throughout the country and encouraging their passion for serving others not only empowers the students, but also lifts up those around them,” said Jane Hale Hopkins, president, Coca‑Cola Scholars Foundation. “The Coca‑Cola system is dedicated to giving back to the communities they serve, and the Coca‑Cola Scholars Foundation is proud to be a part of that commitment.”
A little over a month after being surprised with the good news, Rodriguez and her fellow Scholars came to Atlanta for Scholars Weekend April 4-7 for a crash-course in what it means to be a Coca‑Cola Scholar.
On April 4, Coca‑Cola leaders, sponsors, program alumni and community dignitaries applauded as the 2019 class of Coca‑Cola Scholars walked across the stage at the 31st annual Scholars Banquet. The evening celebrated the new class and welcomed them to a family of alumni 6,000-plus strong, full of leaders driving positive change in their respective fields all over the world, each one of them connected by Coca‑Cola.
“This is not just a group of talented and dedicated people. It really is a family. A family that will be with you, grow with you and learn with you for many, many years to come,” Julie Hamilton, CCSF Board Chair and Senior Vice President, Global Chief Customer & Commercial Leadership Officer of The Coca‑Cola Company, shared with the new class of Scholars.
Coke Scholar alumni were featured throughout the banquet. Nicki Lehrer (2003 Scholar) performed several classical guitar pieces, and Kate Sullivan, 1994 Scholar and host of PBS’s To Dine For with Kate Sullivan, hosted a panel of with three fellow alumni:
-- Adan Gonzalez, 2001 Scholar who is uplifting underprivileged students in inner city public schools through his nonprofit, Puede Network
-- Kavita Shukla, 2002 Scholar who is eliminating food waste through her invention, FreshPaper
-- Samuel Alemayehu, 2004 Scholar who is turning trash into treasure by creating Africa’s first waste-to-energy facility
“When I think about Coca‑Cola Scholars and what this movement, this community, really means to me, I think of it as an investment into the future… one you will all shape and build," said Muhtar Kent, chairman, The Coca‑Cola Company. "And the positive impact of this investment is not confined by city limits, state lines, or even our international borders. On the contrary, the good done by you and your predecessors is destined to multiply and spread around the world."
Leadership Development Institute
On the two mornings following the banquet, the Scholars participated in the Leadership Development Institute – an opportunity designed exclusively for Coca‑Cola Scholars.
In this experience, five new Scholars are paired with a trained Coke Scholar alumni facilitator to explore an inside-out leadership concept through small and large group work. The idea is that better understanding themselves will empower them to be even more effective leaders.
Kirk Tyler, chairman and CEO of the Atlantic Bottling Company, visited with the Scholars. “I always enjoy seeing Scholars interact during the Leadership Development Institute. The staff and the alumni do such a fantastic job of pushing the Scholars to think beyond their comfort zones. We’re proud to support them not only with a scholarship to help them go to college, but also with an experience and helpful tools to maximize the amazing work they are doing in their communities,” he said.
Scholars were further inspired at the Center for Civil and Human Rights and toured the World of Coca‑Cola.
“Through the Leadership Development Institute, I’ve been learning more about what my values are, who I am as a person, and what I want to achieve in the world,” said Grace Kim, a 2019 Scholar from Germantown, Maryland.
The Scholars partnered with Hands on Atlanta to build furniture and create home décor for the Furniture Bank of Metro Atlanta. In teams of four, the students assembled 35 dressers, 20 nightstands, and four dining table sets outside. Inside, they created no-sew rugs and blankets, painted on canvases, and stuffed teddy bears – each with their own name and shirt.
The Furniture Bank’s vision is for all individuals and families to have the furniture necessary to create a safe and secure environment that contributes to health and well-being. They recycle gently used furniture by collecting it from the community and give it to individuals and families moving out of homelessness and fleeing domestic violence, as well as countless others struggling to make ends meet.
To cap off their experience, the 2019 Scholars had a closing celebration at Coca‑Cola headquarters. The closing marks a beginning of sorts – graduation, college, and a future with their new Coca‑Cola Scholar family.
"We're not a one-off, there's 150 of us. And that's incredibly inspiring to realize that there's a community throughout the country our age who are going to use our lives to improve the world," said Joel Kiernan from Green Bay, Wisconsin.
Hopkins concluded: “When I look at this new class of Scholars, I am struck and I am thrilled by the diversity and the unity. They are proof that the two can walk hand in hand and shoulder to shoulder. Hopefully what we do is provide more opportunity - that we open the door just a crack to a different future and they’ll step through it."