College of DuPage student Christian O'Kelley is the recipient of the prestigious Jack Kent Cooke Foundation Undergraduate Transfer Scholarship, the largest private scholarship for two-year and community college transfer students.
The Lombard resident is one of 85 students nationwide to receive the scholarship and the seventh COD recipient in the College's history. The scholarship consists of $30,000 annually to cover educational expenses – including tuition, room and board, books, and fees – during the final two or three years when the recipient completes a bachelor's degree. Click here to watch a video of College of DuPage President Robert L. Breuder surprising O'Kelley during his music class to announce he had received the scholarship.
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"You see people having moments like this, and you never think it's going to happen to you. But when it does, it leaves you speechless," O'Kelley said.
As a boy, O'Kelley said he wanted to pursue not one but two passions. One was to be a television weather forecaster, the other was to perform. In fact, at the age of 8, he discovered that he liked to make people laugh and was cast in a variety of musical productions at such local theater companies as Wheaton Drama and Summer Place Theatre in Naperville.
Although he was homeschooled, O'Kelley took choir courses at Glenbard East High School. At 16, he faced a dilemma: He no longer wanted to be a meteorologist.
"I was thrown off balance, but I knew because of my love for music, it was the only good decision to make," he said. "You're always told the art world is difficult to succeed and thrive in, and it's said with good intentions. But some people who have degrees in meteorology can't find work as a weather forecaster. Nothing is guaranteed as secure, so I'd rather do what I love."
After high school, O'Kelley discovered College of DuPage and everything it offered. When he earned the Presidential Scholar award, which provides full tuition for two years, he knew a college education was within his means. The award also allowed him to continue working at the Elmhurst Public Library and as a tenor section leader at Peace Lutheran Church in Lombard.
O'Kelley said he enjoys all formats of music – from rap to country, to musical theater and classical music from the romantic periods – and he follows current trends in music to see how they might impact him. He likes to sing, direct and compose. At College of DuPage, he's explored all of his musical interests while earning an Associate in Fine Arts – Music degree.
"The Music department has provided me with two things," he said. "First, I've received an excellent foundation for music theory and aural skills. Professor Lee Kesselman's instruction in both of these areas was fantastic. Second, the McAninch Arts Center is a wonderful facility for both giving performances and enjoying them."
Kesselman praised O'Kelley's work ethic and abilities. "I'm proud of all of my students, and Christian represents the best of the best," he said.
O'Kelley originally planned to find an extra part-time job this summer in preparation for his transfer to Elmhurst College in the fall, trying to minimize the expected debt. Now he can focus on his music and the many facets he wants to explore – writing musical theater, writing choral music with a focus on barbershop, composing a cappella multitrack, and even studying liturgical music.
The scholarship is also allowing him to plan for a master's degree, something he thought was financially unattainable.
"I want to take music as far as I can," he said. "My dream is to have a musical I wrote succeed in a major venue. I want to watch it come to life and watch it come to life in front of an audience, because I like helping people escape for a few hours and focus on art, which is what makes life worth living.
"I want to thank the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation. It's hard to change a large part of the world at once, but these scholarships are impacting lives one person at a time and changing them completely."