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Two Old Dominion University students are among 50 college seniors selected as the first Jack Kent Cooke Foundation Graduate Scholars. They will receive up to $50,000 a year for up to six years to pursue graduate study.

Jerris Lee Bennett, a political science major from Virginia Beach, and Gayle T. Harding, a human services counseling major from Hague, Va., were selected from among 675 applicants. To be eligible, students had to be a resident of, be attending a college or university in, or plan to attend a graduate school in Virginia, Maryland or the District of Columbia.

A Truman Scholar finalist, Bennett enlisted in the U.S. Navy at age 17 and was commissioned in 1995 through the Navy's Seaman-to-Admiral Program. He serves as a force protection and anti-terrorism officer and holds the rank of lieutenant. Although neither of his parents finished high school, Bennett was driven to earn a college degree. After graduating from Officer Candidate School and completing tours on board a destroyer and a Naval Special Warfare patrol craft, he enrolled at Old Dominion at age 30. During his time at the university, Bennett served as a student senator and chief of staff to Old Dominion's student body president. He worked with Relay for Life and organized Red Cross blood drives. He also is a member of several honor societies and the university's Honors College. He intends to pursue a master's degree in public administration after receiving his bachelor's degree in May.

A December 2001 Old Dominion graduate, Harding earned her degree through the university's TELETECHNET distance learning program. Growing up in a small fishing village on Virginia's Northern Neck, she has long been an advocate for improving the world in which she lives. After a 1974 car accident left her a quadriplegic, Harding moved to Nashville and embarked on a career as a country music singer. Her record label dropped her, however, after learning she was confined to a wheelchair. This experience led her to become an advocate for people with all forms of disabilities. She learned American Sign Language to communicate with the hearing impaired and participates in mentorship training for those with spinal cord injuries. She helped create the Northern Neck Disability Services Board and was elected its chairman. Harding intends to pursue her master's degree and become a licensed clinical social worker.

The Jack Kent Cooke Foundation was created in honor of the former Washington Redskins and Los Angeles Lakers owner who died in 1997. Cooke's family was unable to send him to college in the midst of the Great Depression, yet his commitment to education was strong. He set aside the bulk of his estate to establish an educational foundation, which has allocated about $10 million over the course of the next six years to support this first class of 50 Jack Kent Cooke Foundation Scholars.

According to the foundation's executive director, Matthew Quinn, students were selected for several reasons. "We chose individuals with exceptional academic promise, but great intellectual ability was only one of our criteria. We chose students who have a special spark, who have overcome real adversity and who have a real commitment to giving back to society."

The recipients represent 30 schools, and 17 are residents of Virginia.

This article was posted on: May 1, 2002

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Telephone: 757-683-3114

Old Dominion University is an equal opportunity, affirmative action institution.