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An Ideal Student

April 27, 2007

A moment of denial may have been the turning point of Kenneth Ike's life. It was when the Baylor University junior was a 16-year-old high school student. His younger brother, who was 14, was running a high fever and Ike's mother took him to a Houston-area health clinic for treatment. Lacking health insurance, Franka Cutliff-Ike, who raising her children on her own, was turned away from the clinic.

"Something clicked in me," recalls Ike. "I thought, 'Why are we being denied service? Why isn't this physician willing to help us?' I thought a doctor's job was to help those in need.

"Right then and there it started to hit me," he adds. "Maybe being a doctor is the job for me." (Ike's brother now attends Stanford University.)

Ike's goal of becoming a physician received an important boost in late March, when the University Scholar in Baylor's honors program was named a 2007 Truman Scholar. Ike is one of 65 students - and only two from Texas - from 56 U.S. colleges and universities to be selected as a Truman Scholar on the basis of his leadership potential, intellectual ability and likelihood of "making a difference" in society. Truman Scholars must also pursue careers in government, the nonprofit or advocacy sectors, education or elsewhere in public service.

Ike learned of the award when he walked into Professor James Marcum's "Philosophy of Science" class.

"The class was smiling at me," he recalls. "I wondered what was up and turned around and President Lilley walked in and gave me the good news."

The Truman Scholarship, which provides $30,000 for graduate or professional study, is but the latest in a long line of academic achievements for the student whom Elizabeth Vardaman, associate dean of arts and sciences and special academic projects, says possesses "an exceptional attitude and love of learning." Vardaman was one of several individuals who urged Ike to apply for the scholarship, including Ike's mother, Marcum and Professor of Chemistry David Pennington.

"I will never forget the first time I met with Kenneth," recalls Vardaman. "He immediately told me what it had meant to grow up in an underserved community and the ways in which he would like to go back to the Houston area and be the [kind of] physician his family didn't have when he was growing up."

The Truman Scholarship Foundation was established by Congress in 1975 as a memorial to the nation's 33rd President. Ike was selected from among 585 candidates nominated by 280 colleges and universities. In addition to financial support, Truman Scholars also receive priority admission and supplemental financial aid at premier graduate institutions, leadership training, career and graduate school counseling and special internship opportunities within the federal government.

"The Truman Scholarship is a tremendous honor for Kenneth and Baylor University," University President John M. Lilley said when informing Ike of his latest academic achievement. "Kenneth continues a Baylor tradition of producing exceptionally bright students who desire to be leaders and public servants in our world, which is precisely what the Truman Foundation seeks from its scholars. All of us at Baylor look forward to witnessing the great things that Kenneth will accomplish in the future."

Ike is the eighth Baylor student to be awarded a Truman scholarship since the program began in 1977. The award is not only a tribute to Ike's drive, academic performance and commitment to public service, says Vardaman, but also to the Baylor University community, which includes two other students who were finalists for a 2007 Truman scholarship.

"To have three Truman finalists is exciting," she says. "It shows the kind of student body we have and the [kind] of conversations they're having among themselves because so many say they'd like to find a way to give back to a world they feel grateful to. Faith propels them to live out those values."

The level of success Ike enjoys at Baylor is hardly a surprise to those who know him. As a student at Alief Hastings High School in Houston, he excelled at academics and athletics, including serving as vice president of the school's National Honor Society chapter and the math honor society. He was a tutor, a judge for debates and a member of several scholarly groups (science, Spanish, and literature societies) and the chess and computer clubs.

Ike was also a star for the Hastings football squad as an all-league outside linebacker and defensive captain. His success on the gridiron brought him to another crucial decision point, whether to accept an athletic or academic scholarship to attend college. He remembers thinking and praying about what the "best path" for him would be.

"The back of my varsity jacket had the words 'God's Plan' on it," he says. "I believe God has a plan for everybody and I just wanted to make sure I found out what mine was."

Vardaman, Pennington and Marcum all point to Ike's participation in the University Scholars program (with an emphasis in biochemistry), the Honors Program and the Baylor Interdisciplinary Core as evidence of his commitment to academic excellence.

Ike was in Pennington's general chemistry class during his freshman year at Baylor. "In each class he sat on the front row, had a great sense of humor and was consistently engaged with the class material," says Pennington. "[Kenneth] demonstrated outstanding problem- solving skill, an ability to reason both logically and abstractly and balanced his course work with outside activities. His positive disposition to learning and rapid adaptation to new environments suggests success in research. In brief, he was, and is, an ideal student."

Pennington encouraged Ike to apply for an internship at the Duke University School of Medicine the summer between his freshman and sophomore years.

"Something ignited within me there. I fell in love with working in a hospital and being able to help people," says Ike. "I thought, 'Maybe this is what I'm meant to do."

The following summer, Ike served an internship at the University of Texas-Southwestern Medical Center in Houston, where he participated in stem cell research. He found that he was as passionate about research as he was for being a hands-on community physician. Facing yet another crucial decision point, Ike was encouraged to meet with Vardaman about the Truman Scholars program. After more thought and prayer, Ike decided he wanted a career serving public health needs in underserved communities like Alief.

"I saw the potential for being a change agent and for helping people through public service, whether it's setting up health clinics or trying to impact public policy," says Ike, who hopes to enroll in a medical school with a joint MD/Master of Public Health program. "It's probably the best decision I've ever made because now I'm a Truman Scholar. I see the doors that are opening for me."

"Knowing his intensity and commitment to his career goals, I am confident that Kenneth's passion will carry through into community action once he is trained," says Pennington. "His impact may well be felt on a state, regional and national level in my judgment."


Scholarships at Baylor

Baylor University was able to provide Kenneth Ike access to a world-class education through a financial aid award package. The University assists students like Kenneth each year through a variety of financial aid tools including need and merit-based scholarships. Baylor will distribute more than $127 million from institutional funds and from outside sources to support scholarships, assistantships and other financial aid programs during the 2006-07 academic year, according to Jackie Diaz, assistant vice president for student financial services.

"With a total enrollment of more than 14,000, by far the majority of our students receive some form of scholarship," Diaz says. "That assistance may be a one-time Kiwanis Club scholarship for $500 or it may be a need-based scholarship supported by institutional funds. Scholarships are very important to our student because of the ever-growing, increased costs of the educational experience, in general."

Private support is "critical" toward meeting the needs of students, she says.

"As much as we work at being good stewards of the endowed funds we are responsible for and use as wisely as possible for our students, it doesn't come close to covering the need that exists to help our students," Diaz says.

Kenneth Ike's Truman Scholarship underscores the challenges that many students face in paying for a college education as well as the potential rewards, she says.

"Opportunities like the Truman Scholarship is a real blessing for [Kenneth], but also for Baylor at large," Diaz says. "When one of our students is recognized in this way it's not only an honor for the student, it's an honor for the institution."

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