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Civic Impact

Chuck Cooper legacy: from NBA star to grad student to scholarships

When Duquesne University basketball player Chuck Cooper Jr., the first African American drafted into the NBA, emerged from his six-year professional career in 1956, he had a tough time finding good work, says Chuck Cooper Foundation Chairman of the Board Zak Thomas. Advice he received to attend graduate school was the key, Thomas says.

After Cooper earned his master’s degree in social work from the University of Minnesota in 1961, he began a life of public service:  first as parks and recreation director for the City of Pittsburgh, then with PNC as the urban affairs officer, leading affirmative action and community development programs.
That's why the Cooper Foundation just awarded its first graduate scholarships to five individuals to study locally and get ahead. Thomas says he is surprised "just how low the numbers have been and continue to be at the graduate level for diversity students" --  six percent in the 1960s and just 11 percent today.
The foundation at first was going to award a single scholarship based on the applicants' academic excellence and community work.
Unable to decide among the excellent candidates, the foundation increased its awards to five, including a $5,000 scholarship from PNC Bank to Rufus Burnett, Jr. to attend the McAnulty Graduate School of Liberal Arts at Duquesne University. Burnett intends to use his graduate degree to prepare minority youth for meaningful careers in in social science and the humanities. Previously, he did humanitarian work in areas affected by Hurricane Katrina and ran an afterschool program for minority students.
The other scholarship winners, all of whom will study at Duquesne, are:
  • Juel Smith, $3,000 to study in the School of Education: Smith, already a working scientist, now hopes to help minority studies pursue the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) disciplines;
  • Florence St. Jean, $1,000 to study in the School of Education: St. Jean has performed humanitarian work in Haiti and following Superstorm Sandy and wants to lead and teach counseling with emphasis on the disenfranchised;
  • Michelle Outcalt, $1,000 to study in the School of Leadership and Professional Advancement: Outcalt is a determined single mother whose daughter will also be attending college in the fall;
  • Candice Aston, $1,000 to pursue a Ph.D. in philosophy: Aston, the first member of her family to attend college, hopes to start a non-profit organization to assist single mothers pursuing their education.
The foundation's hope, says Thomas, is to expand the scholarships in future years to students across the nation.
"The one commitment that they've all made -- and that's why we chose them," he concludes, "is giving back to the community. The scholarships we're giving today will be returned many times in the future by the acts of these people."
Writer: Marty Levine
Source: Zak Thomas, Chuck Cooper Foundation
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