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Paving his way
Familys first college graduate wins $30,000 scholarship
Matthew Tate with the Regents Award he won on April 16. - photo by Submitted photo/The Covington News

A home-schooled kid with a father who dropped out of high school and a mother who dropped out of college doesn’t quite fit the typical profile for a stellar college student.

So when Matthew Tate won the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation Undergraduate Transfer Scholarship, which will provide $30,000 a year for up to three years toward tuition, book fees and cost of living when he transfers to Georgia Tech from Georgia Perimeter College for electrical engineering in the fall, it’s safe to wonder where he got it from.

“I grew up thinking I was stupid,” said the 22-year-old newlywed. “I never had college in my sights at all.”

Tate’s parents think school is a waste of time and money, he said. His dad is a network operations manager, and his mom travels the world as a motivational speaker.

“They make good money, so they don’t see the need for attending school,” Tate said.

However, Tate is not hesitant to thank his parents and even attribute his recent success to them, brushing off the fact that they still don’t understand his choice to go to school.

“I would not be doing so well in college now had I not seen then all that hard work they put in,” Tate said.

God’s way

A modest and deeply religious man, Tate said although he enjoys school, he does not want to be in debt after graduating because the Bible cautions against such misfortune.

Even before he began college he worked for a company in Social Circle that creates solar powered innovations for community development projects. When he was 19, his boss pushed him to apply for school. Tate said he didn’t think much of it then, but he took a placement test and “blew it out of the water.”

So he started taking classes.

Tate received no money from his parents to help pay for tuition and books, so he has had to finance his own education. Most of his time at GPC has been as a part-time student because he continues to work for his boss in Social Circle, who even personally helped him through his first two semesters. (Tate asked to keep his boss’s name anonymous, so as not to thrust him in an unwanted spotlight.)

“Getting into this, someone once told me, ‘I have a feeling God is going to pay for your school.’ And so far, he has,” Tate said.

Georgia’s HOPE Scholarship and Federal Pell Grant Program have retroactively paid for most of the costs incurred at GPC.

But further schooling would not be possible without the Jack Kent Cooke scholarship.

“When I applied, I just knew I would get it. Not at all because of some academic greatness,” he said in a humble, self-mocking tone, “but because I had about 30 people praying for me. So I just knew.”

“I thought, ‘this is a good person’”

“This was a make-or-break situation for Matthew,” said Salli Vargis, professor of history and honors coordinator at GPC.

Vargis, who Tate said was his most influential teacher, said he would have been accepted to Georgia Tech regardless but that he could not have met the financial requirements without this scholarship.

The Jack Kent Cooke Foundation awarded the Undergraduate Transfer Scholarship to 85 community college students in the country this year. Tate and a student from the Clarkston Campus were the 11th and 12th GPC students to become recipients.

One of the requirements for the scholarship is financial need.

“He would tell me about his difficulties and how he was the first in his family going to college (to graduate). How he did not get much encouragement from home. And I said, ‘I’d like to give that to you,’” Vargis said.

She said she told him it doesn’t hurt to apply because if you don’t apply, you won’t win. Vargis helped Tate through the application, which included paperwork, essay and volunteer hour logging.

I saw the potential in him and I thought, ‘this is a good person,’” Vargis said. “He’s not just a good student. He’s very polite, extremely cheerful. He has a very positive attitude toward life.”

“Not always one-sided”

Academic achievement and financial need can be clearly gauged by information on paper, but the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation also requires leadership and a desire to help others as qualifications for the scholarship.

Tate excelled in this field, too.

Going to college has changed his “worldview around a little bit,” he said. “You learn it’s not always one-sided. It gives you the confidence to go get more information.”

He said he intends to use his electrical engineering degree to find solutions for third-world problems using renewable resources. He went to Peru on a mission trip with his boss, traveling up the Amazon to build water towers, wells and sanitation systems. This summer, he is going to Mozambique to volunteer with a Christian organization.

“I plan to affect the whole world,” Tate said.

He still has three classes to take at GPC, and with his job schedule he does not know whether he will end up graduating from GPC or transferring. Regardless, he will start Georgia Tech in the fall.

“Quite an honor”

Tate attended the Ceremony of Educational Excellence on Wednesday evening because he was also nominated for the Regents Scholar award. Each degree program at each GPC campus gives an award. Each campus then picks one of those students as campus scholar. From the campus scholars, one person is chosen to receive the Regents Scholar for the entire college.

Guess who won?

“I didn’t expect to actually get it,” Tate said. “To be chosen from one campus, where I’ve had contact with the faculty there, I could understand that. But to be chosen for the whole college, it’s quite an honor.

“I got this massive plaque I could hardly fit in my car.”

The Regents Scholar is not a monetary award, but it is highly prestigious. Tate said he especially enjoyed the ceremony because he was able to invite his parents, parents-in-law and wife.

“My parents always told me if you can succeed, you don’t have to go to school for it, because they didn’t. It was interesting for them to see me go to school and succeed,” Tate said. “I really enjoyed that.”

The only problem is Tate and his wife’s house doesn’t have room on the walls for a massive plaque.

It can be found hanging on the wall in his parent’s house.