Santa Monica College honors student Stephen Olsen – the first in his blue-collar family to go to college – has now marked another “first:” the first in SMC history to receive the prestigious Jack Kent Cooke Foundation scholarship.
The award will provide Olsen – who has already been accepted to Columbia University in New York and UC Berkeley – up to $30,000 a year for three years to finish his undergraduate education. Only 60 community college students out of 600 nominees nationwide receive the scholarship.
“It’s fantastic,” Olsen said. “This has given me my future. There are opportunities in this country that are not available anywhere else.”
The scholarship award is the icing on the cake of a stellar academic career for the 33-year-old from a lower-middle-class family in a small Wisconsin town. Graduating next month with two Associate of Arts degrees and a perfect 4.0 grade point average, Olsen is planning to transfer to Columbia or Berkeley or two schools he hasn’t heard from yet – Brown in Rhode Island and USC Film School.
“SMC has helped my self-esteem and humbled me at the same time,” he said. “As an older student, I find that most professors connect to me a little bit easier than the majority of very young students. At the same time, I am reminded every day that I am in my 30s and still a sophomore with sophomoric knowledge.”
It is that sense of “sophomoric knowledge” that drives him. Olsen is hungry to learn. He is nothing if not a budding intellectual, a curious scholar, a knowledge addict.
“Now that I’ve been to college, my thoughts are 100 percent more interesting,” he said. “What was going on in my brain before was vapid.”
Stephen came to L.A. like so many before him – an actor trained in New York, he moved here to break into entertainment. He held a series of typical jobs – in casting and in bars and restaurants, including the celebrity-owned Dolce where he pulled in $1,000 a week. But he was bored.
At 30, he decided it was time to “do so much more with my life” and started at SMC in winter 2009. He joined the Scholars Program and Phi Theta Kappa for honors students, became active in student government, and continued occasional singing and acting.
“Whatever I do, it will be helping people in whatever way I feel I can use my best gifts,” he said. “From acting to studying philosophy, psychology, human evolution and filmmaking, I feel there has been a consistent path for me in studying the human condition on deeper and deeper levels throughout my life and presenting it to others.”
The Jack Kent Cooke Foundation is a private, independent foundation established by the late Jack Kent Cooke, a self-made billionaire from humble beginnings, to help exceptionally promising students reach their full potential through education. Launched in 2000, the foundation focuses in particular on students with financial need.