Student Life

UK Grad Wins Jack Kent Cooke Scholarship

LEXINGTON, Ky. (Aug. 27, 2009) − Kayla Rae Whitaker has been writing for nearly a decade and is continuously awed by how the written word not only captures the story of the character being told, but also gives the reader insight into the culture of the time. It is this enduring passion for writing that led Whitaker to a major in English at the University of Kentucky. Now the 2007 UK graduate will further pursue her dedication to the art of writing at the next level as UK's third recipient of the prestigious Jack Kent Cooke Foundation Graduate Scholarship.

Whitaker is one of 30 new recipients of the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation Graduate Scholarships. The scholars are chosen from a nationwide selection process that draws approximately 1,000 nominees from across the country. Each scholarship is worth up to $300,000 ($50,000 per year for a maximum of six years) which is among the largest scholarships offered in the United States. The value and duration of each scholarship varies based on the cost of attendance or other grants each student receives. Each university is allowed to nominate only two students for the award.

Whitaker will use the scholarship to pursue her passion for writing as she works toward a master’s degree in fine arts (MFA) offered through the Creative Writing Program at New York University (NYU).

“I view my calling as both a great pleasure and profound responsibility,” says the writer. “I am dedicated to writing as an intimately human act -- as one's reaction to one's own complexity and to the overwhelming expanse of history."

Whitaker keenly understands the importance of writing and through her further studies and writing hopes to make an impact on her work and in turn society.

"Art is too often discounted as a secondary priority," Whitaker says. "The writer is necessary to society. An MFA will provide a flexible, encompassing education, offering methodology and intense attention to building effective, honest stories.”

Candidates for the Jack Kent Cooke Scholarship underwent a rigorous assessment at two stages by independent panels of academic experts, including distinguished faculty and professionals. The selection criteria included academic achievement and financial need, as well as a will to succeed, leadership and community involvement.

Through the scholarships, the foundation aims to help highly motivated, highly driven individuals overcome one of the biggest challenges to their careers - the cost of advanced professional or graduate training.

"She will be able to join one of the foremost creative writing programs in the country, at New York University, thanks to her Jack Kent Cooke Graduate Scholarship," comments Robert S. Tannenbaum, associate director of Undergraduate Studies and faculty coordinator for the Jack Kent Cooke Graduate Scholarship at UK. "I believe we are witnessing the early stages of the career of one of Kentucky's brightest literary lights of the 21st century."

Whitaker, the daughter of Glenna D. Whitaker and the late George Whitaker of Mount Sterling, Ky., credits the creative writing faculty at UK, among others, as being highly influential in shaping her discipline and approach to writing and preparing her for her future studies at NYU.

"My passion for writing was informed by the instruction of several faculty members, including Gurney Norman, Nikky Finney, Tom Marksbury and Rebecca Howell (now an instructor at Morehead State University)," says Whitaker. "I was also incredibly fortunate to have been a fellow at the Gaines Center for the Humanities under the tutelage of Dan Rowland and Lisa Broome-Price."

Whitaker, a member of the UK Honors Program, also counts the Appalachian Studies Program as another influence on her writing.

"My college career offered an opportunity for immersion in both creative practice and scholarly study; I found that my work in the English Department and the Appalachian Studies Program at my university supplemented my desire to build cohesive, honest stories with clarity and impact," adds Whitaker.

Her time at the university also allowed her the opportunity to intern with the Kentucky Women Writers Conference.

"My internships with the Kentucky Women Writers Conference as an undergraduate were quite influential," Whitaker says. "The experience offered the opportunity to meet writers for whom writing was a job, as well as a calling. The realization that this could be a functional career was formative."

Whitaker, who already has several published works in poetry, fiction and non-fiction, plans to continue devoting time to her own writing upon completion of her graduate studies and possibly return to teaching. Her writing typically explores issues of class, gender and racial inequities.

Established in 2000, the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation is a private, independent foundation created by the estate of Jack Kent Cooke dedicated to advancing the education of excep­tionally promising students. Besides scholarships for students attending graduate and professional school, the foundation offers scholarships for students from community colleges who want to earn four-year degrees, scholarships to help high-achieving youth develop their talents and abilities throughout high school, and grants designed to increase educational access for outstanding students with financial need.

Jack Kent Cooke, whose diverse holdings included television stations and newspapers, the Chrysler Building in New York City, the Los Angeles Lakers and the Washington Redskins, was a philanthropist, musician and art collector who died in 1997 leaving the majority of his fortune to the foundation.