Young Alumnus Aims to Help Poor, Wins Notably Generous Scholarship

A recent Carolina graduate – whose parents immigrated to the United States 25 years ago with $63 between them – has won one of the nation’s most generous merit scholarships for graduate school.

Thomas A. Thekkekandam ’04 of Durham, who as a Morehead Scholar graduated with distinction and double-majored in political science and psychology, has received a 2006 Jack Kent Cooke Foundation Graduate Scholarship, worth up to $50,000 annually for as many as six years.

Thekkekandam (pronounced TEK-ey-KON-dum) plans to use the scholarship to earn a law degree at Duke University and an MBA at UNC’s Kenan-Flagler Business School. He wants to specialize in international and human rights law at Duke and in sustainable enterprise and entrepreneurship at Kenan-Flagler.

“My long-term goal is to develop and lead sustainable businesses and provide start-up investments that help impoverished communities build wealth and resources,” he said.

As an undergraduate, Thekkekandam was among several students who founded Nourish International. The nonprofit organization conducted fundraising activities, earning $30,000 in its first four years, and used the money to carry out poverty-relief projects in countries, including India, Bolivia, Uganda and Guyana.

English Professor George Lensing, who directs the Office of Distinguished Scholarships, said Thekkekandam “is committed to bringing the rigor and exactitude of law and business to the needs of the poorest parts of the world.”

“He works quietly, confidently, deliberately and with great effectiveness. He is now uniquely situated to become a significant agent for change on the global stage. He is a great credit to our University and those who helped form him here.”

The son of Andrews and Theresa Thekkekandam of Greensboro, Thekkekandam was valedictorian of his graduating class at High Point Central High School in 2000.

The Cooke Foundation chose 77 winners from among 1,079 students nominated for this year’s scholarships by U.S. colleges and universities. Thekkekandam is Carolina’s fifth winner since the first awards were made in 2002 to students from select states. In 2004, the program opened to students nationwide.

The late Jack Kent Cooke owned professional sports teams including the Los Angeles Lakers and Washington Redskins. His other businesses included newspapers, magazines, radio stations, cable television and real estate. He left most of his fortune to establish the foundation. Its mission is to help young people of exceptional promise reach their full potential through education, focusing on students with financial need.

It was after one of his Morehead summers, in Ghana in 2001, that Thekkekandam changed his major and his goals: from working for NASA or flying the space shuttle to working for lasting improvement in poor communities. His efforts that summer to bolster educational resources in a small town in the West African nation “opened a new world of public service to me,” Thekkekandam said.

He was born in the United States, to which his parents had emigrated from India in 1981, seeking new opportunities. Both had master’s degrees, and they encouraged their son to take advantage of as many activities as possible; he pursued tae kwon do, flute lessons, wrestling and art and became an Eagle Scout.

Thekkekandam and others aim to extend Nourish International to as many other universities as possible. They recently started chapters at Duke, N.C. State and Wake Forest universities and the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

Thekkekandam was a member of UNC’s varsity wrestling team and the Dance Marathon, an annual student-run fundraiser for the N.C. Children’s Hospital. Since graduating, he has worked for The Fund for Public Interest Research, a national nonprofit, and The Link Group, an international market research firm with offices in Atlanta and Durham.

A UNC committee, chaired by economics Professor Patrick Conway, nominated Thekkekandam for the Jack Kent Cooke scholarship.

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