Wow. It’s hard to believe it was 24 years ago that I walked across the stage at Scholars Weekend in Atlanta. To be perfectly honest, I don’t remember most of the banquet, but I can recall all the faces of the peers I met and the fun we had and how I felt so humbled by the amazing people around me.

I still feel that way! For one of the first times as a young person I felt perfectly comfortable and so absolutely inadequate all at the same time. It was truly a life-changing weekend for me.  Recently, I was asked why I continue to stay connected to the Coca-Cola Scholars Foundation and the alumni network, and at that moment I began to think about the people and lifelong friends I have met through my Coke experiences. Ironically, none of them were from that first banquet 24 years ago.

I was one of the lucky ones. Growing up, it seemed like I always had a mentor and someone who could see the potential in me and push me to reach it. It’s strange how my great mentors always found me by accident. Mentorship is not a program, or a buzzword we should be throwing around during some paid political speaking engagement, or to talk about how tough your neighborhood was. It is a powerful relationship that makes you reflect on your life and experience and share yourself openly with a person who needs you; it is a powerful relationship. That’s why I come back to Coca-Cola Scholar events. Relationships. If you have never felt the power of this group and the bond between Scholars, you have missed out on the greatest benefit this group has to offer.

I have countless stories of the Scholar friends who continue to positively affect my life, not to mention a story about Carrie Regan (1989 Coca-Cola Scholar) and I being mistaken for UFC fighters, but that’s for another day! Every relationship is so important, but one really took me by surprise and demonstrated for me the breadth of this amazing collection of individuals. The experience will forever connect me to one young man.

In 2010, I came to Scholars Weekend as a member of the Coca-Cola Scholar Alumni Advisory Board. This annual event is when the Scholars Foundation brings all of the new Coca-Cola Scholars together in Atlanta to celebrate and further develop their leadership skills. Carolyn Norton, alumni relations manager at the Coca-Cola Scholars Foundation, told me I should meet one new Scholar in particular – Kim Heng, a young man who was from a town near Austin where I grew up.

When I met Kim, he was very shy, barely made eye contact with me and was noticeably withdrawn. Like most of us when we were high school seniors, he was a little overwhelmed with the hoopla of Scholars Weekend and was trying to figure out his place in this group. We had a brief conversation and in that moment I knew he was a special young man who had such an amazing potential.

Throughout the weekend we got to know one another. Kim was from Cambodia and had lived a very meager life up to this point, but make no mistake, he was always smiling despite his situation. He worked in a donut shop and at a grocery store while living in a difficult family situation. He had not slept on a proper bed for most of his life, and while the promise of new life in America sounded great, the separation from his family in Cambodia and the servitude he endured while living with an aunt left little hope to improve his situation. His father was still in Cambodia, and Kim had a basic goal to work and save money so that he could one day get home to see him.

Tim and Kim

Despite Kim’s circumstances, he not only persevered, but thrived. I learned that as a high school senior he was class president and president of the Key Club and Science Club. He worked to help orphans from Cambodia and was an advisor for immigrants among other service activities, all while attending school and working two jobs. Kim was passionate about helping others and made an impact at his school and in his community that I’m sure continues to inspire others.

By Saturday morning of Scholars Weekend, the quiet boy had found his stride. That night, just after a slide show of pictures from the weekend, I saw Kim grab a chair, stand up in front of the entire group of Scholars and get their attention. This shy kid suddenly yelled at the crowd and had something to say! He began by sharing a little about his background and that he had come not knowing anyone and didn’t feel like he belonged with all the amazing peers he had met. And then he told them he was so proud to be there and that he was the happiest he has ever been. He told the Scholars that they had changed his life. I tried to find a dry eye, but there were none. The entire room was crying from joy for this new friend. 

The summer after Kim was in Atlanta for Scholars Weekend, a group of Scholars came together and planned a trip for Kim to get to Cambodia to see his father. He would have international layovers and would have to take an unconventional route to make it all happen, but we did it! Many Scholars helped arrange airport pickups, overnight stays in Canada (Thanks to Aaron Chadbourne, 2002 Coca-Cola Scholar) and fundraising so that Kim could buy and take school supplies to kids in Cambodia, delivering a message of hope along with the supplies. That’s the heart of the Coca‑Cola Scholars network: because we’re connected, we use our networks and resources to support and inspire each other along the way.

For years to come I would talk often to Kim. I enjoyed seeing him excel at the University of Texas in Austin, visiting him during his internship with Zappos, and getting the call that he had accepted a position at Chevron’s corporate headquarters.

Why do I stay connected to the Scholars network? Because Kim changed my life. You see, Kim was nothing like me, and his story was nothing like mine. Like most great relationships, we found each other by accident. All we had in common was a scholarship – the Coca-Cola Scholars Foundation had identified something special in each of us, and invested in both of us to bring us together. But had I not stayed connected to the Coca-Cola Scholars Foundation, I would not have met this young man who taught me the power of quiet leadership, humility, the strength of true perseverance, and the heart of conviction. Kim mentored me without knowing it.

I have met the most unsuspecting and unexpected friends being part of this illustrious group and we have formed a bond that is hard to explain but easy to see if you walk into a room of Coke Scholars. I was lucky enough to spend a few years on the Alumni Advisory Board, its Regional Connections Committee, and the National Selection Committee, and have been able to watch the Foundation transform as I participated in the Leadership Development Institute. There are so many ways to be involved, big and small. Maybe I’ll be a chaperone next…those guys have all the fun!

I am proud of what our Scholar alumni have accomplished in the world, but I am more proud of the stories you have never heard; Scholars helping one another, mentoring each other, connecting in business and in life to help one another. Go Kim!

Tim Coke

Tim McCallum is a 1991 Coca-Cola Scholar and president and CEO of Raze Media, a market leader of cutting-edge mobile marketing solutions. Active in his community, he served two terms on the City Council in Rockwall, TX, has served on the Board of the Rockwall Economic Development Corporation, and coaches Girls Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) Basketball. Tim is a previous member of the Coca-Cola Scholars Foundation's Alumni Advisory Board. He received his bachelor’s degree from Texas State University and currently resides in Dallas, TX with his wife and two kids. You can find Tim on Twitter @timmccallum.

The Coca-Cola Scholars Foundation provides scholarship programs and lifelong enrichment opportunities in support of exceptional peoples’ thirst for knowledge and their desire to make a difference in the world. Through the Coca-Cola Scholars Program, they award 150 college scholarships of $20,000 to socially-conscious and service-minded high school seniors across the nation each year, resulting in a network of over 5,550 program alumni who have become a powerful force for positive change. For more information about the Coca-Cola Scholars Foundation, Scholar alumni, or how to support these efforts, visit www.coca‑ or contact Lauren O’Brien at laurenobrien@coca‑