More than 500 Coca-Cola Scholars ventured to Atlanta last month to uncap their potential at The Coca-Cola Scholars Leadership Summit. The weekend-long event, held every five years, invites alumni from all 25 Scholar classes to further develop their leadership skills, grow as community influencers, and strengthen the already successful alumni network.

This year’s summit called for another celebration, as 2013 marks the 25th anniversary of The Coca-Cola Scholars Foundation. Since 1989, the Coke Scholars Foundation has provided more than 5,000 scholarships to high school seniors across the United States who demonstrate academic excellence, exceptional leadership skills, and dedication to service.

The program provides much more than a financial award, however. The lifelong connections and camaraderie it nurtures truly set it apart from other scholarship programs. 

Over the past 25 years, more than 2 million students have applied, and 5,287 have been selected. It’s a tight-knit bunch that is growing even closer. That was the focus behind creating the first Coke Scholars Leadership Summit in 2008, which connected scholars from every class, ranging from Ivy League undergrads and city council members to influential CEOs and successful entrepreneurs.

It’s a network J. Mark Davis, president of The Coca-Cola Scholars Foundation, calls “one big family.”

Mark Davis speaking to the Scholars.

Mark Davis, president of The Coca-Cola Scholars Foundation.

A Family of 5,000… and Growing

Davis is a name some might claim is synonymous with Coke Scholars. Serving as the foundation's president for almost 20 years, Davis has worked with the organization since its inception. He says his leadership role has been the most personally satisfying career path he could have chosen.

“It is an opportunity to interact with amazing young people,” he says. “It is rewarding to be able to support them as they go off to college and then go out and make a difference in the world.”

Rumor has it that Davis knows every Scholar by name. Jokingly, he admits he may not have that much room in his head, but assures that he does, in fact, know each one personally. In fact, Davis is the only person to meet all 5,287 Coke Scholars— a privilege he wears “as a badge of honor.”

“That’s what I say about this program… I have two biological kids, and I have 5,287 other sons and daughters all around the world. We want them to feel like a family,” he says.

The growing family came together at the 2nd Coke Scholars Leadership Summit to connect across classes, career paths and passions. The diverse group also enjoyed the opportunity to attend presentations from Coke Scholars like the founder of The Muse, Kathryn Minshew, to participate in interactive forums including one led by Coca-Cola CMO Joe Tripodi, and to compete in the first “Social Entrepreneurship Challenge” to win money for a nonprofit they have founded.

Coke Scholars start an impromptu dance at the Social Entrepreneurship Challenge

Jason Feldman (1990) and Jackie Rotman (2008) started an impromptu dance party during Jackie's Social Entrepreneurship Challenge pitch to the judges for her charity "Everybody Dance Now".

'Changing Lives and Changing Communities'

The summit was also a time for Scholars to learn and grow with the ultimate goal of making an impact in their communities when they return home. It’s an aspect of the event that 2008 Scholar Michael Tubbs thoroughly looked forward to. Tubbs is already making waves in his community as the youngest city council member in Stockton, Calif. At just 23 years old, he's also making history as one of the youngest elected officials in the U.S.

“It’s just incredible to be a part of this network,” he says. “We are truly changing lives and changing communities.”

Tubbs embodies the humbleness that is so apparent among Coke Scholars. When he first applied, he never expected the program to change his life. As the first in his family to go to college, he admits, “I just wanted money so I could go to school.” Scholarship money drove Tubbs to apply, but he insists the value of being a Coke Scholar goes beyond any dollar value. 

“It was joining a family that would help me develop over my four years of college that really made the most impact,” says Tubbs.

Now a graduate from Stanford University, The Coke Scholars Foundation is still an influential part of Tubbs’ life. The self-deprecating young man was invited to speak at this year’s summit. For him, it was a privilege beyond words. Having so much admiration for his fellow Coke Scholars, speaking in front of them was no easy task. But in true Coke Scholar fashion, he was ready to take on the challenge.

Coke Scholars hug after raising money for a good cause.

Coke Scholars hugging it out after raising money for worthy organizations.

Pressure’s Off

Tubbs wasn’t the only one feeling the public speaking jitters. Ryan McCannell is an original Coca-Cola Scholar from the class of 1989. A self-proclaimed “Coca-Cola Classic,” he crossed his fingers for a flawless presentation. Speaking about “Leadership in the International Arena,” he says he hopes to inspire the younger Scholars who inspire him.

McCannell says he is extremely proud of Tubbs and the rest of the “talented and passionate people involved in the program.”

Professionally, McCannell has reached a personal peak. Working as the Division Chief for Conflict, Peacebuiding and Governance in the U.S Agency for International Development (USAID) Bureau for Africa, he says he is thrilled with his job. McCannell—who used his scholarship money to study abroad in Togo, Africa—says it was during this life-changing trip that he found his calling. 

“So it’s not a stretch to say the scholarship was instrumental in opening the door for the rest of my life,” he says.

Now McCannell looks forward to building stronger connections with younger alumni. As a member of the Scholar selection panel, he meets the finalists under intense circumstances. But during the summit weekend, he says, “The pressure is off.”

“We all have this one thing in common now. We are neither the selectors nor the ones being selected,” he says.

'Coke Scholars See No Barriers'

Coke Scholars enjoy a night at Six Flags.

Coke Scholars enjoy a night at Six Flags.

What all passionate Coke Scholars have in common is their drive to better the lives of others and their communities. Davis says he is proud of every Scholar for advancing their local community. “It’s not about winning a Nobel Peace Prize or making headlines in The New York Times,” he says. "It’s about making a huge impact even in a small community.”

Coming from all walks of life, Coke Scholars are a unique breed of diverse trailblazers and influencers. Davis says he looks forward to what this tenacious group of individuals will accomplish next.

“Coke Scholars see no barriers,” exclaims Davis, “They will find a way around any barrier to be successful and solve whatever the problem is that they are faced with.”  

Forward Thinking

Looking ahead, the organization plans to continue strengthening alumni relations through deeper involvement. By instituting ideas like the “Take a Call Program” that will connect alumni and new Scholars through a phone call support system, the Foundation is looking for ways to further engage scholars so they can continue to make an impact in the world.

“We don’t want to be an inch deep and a mile wide,” says Davis. “We want to actually be really into their conscious.”

As far as accepting future Scholars, the Foundation plans to change its reward structure. Currently, the program offers 250 students either a $20,000 or $10,000 scholarship. Beginning in 2014, the Foundation will go back to awarding 150 Scholars. Each will be allotted $20,000.

“The key thing for us is to use the scholarship money the best way we can to make sure each Scholar gets an amount that is impactful towards their future,” says Davis.

Applications for the 2014 Scholar class are wrapping up shortly. For more information about the application or to apply visit The Coca-Cola Scholar Foundation website.