High Achiever: Jonah Okike-Hephizbah on earning $40,000 Jack Kent Cooke scholarship

Even sitting inconspicuously at a table next to the vending machines, third-year Santa Monica College Engineering major Jonah Okike-Hephzibah was met with a greeting from a fellow student who recognized him. “You’re the guy that was in the article, right? I’m happy to hear what’s going on for you,” the student told him, before Okike-Hephzibah dispensed to him advice about applying for scholarships.

Okike-Hephzibah would probably tell you that he’s just an average student doing what he has to do to further his education. This modesty is in direct conflict with the idea others have of him, now that he’s been awarded a $40,000 scholarship by the Jack Cooke Kent Foundation.

“I’ve had a few people be like, ‘Oh, you were on the SMC page!’ or yeah, it’s really weird. I just tell them that anybody could do it,” he says. “You don’t have to be special. I’m definitely not special. I’m probably like your average student. You just have to really be disciplined and focus and work through everything.”

Okike-Hephzibah deals with his fair share of obstacles himself, since he juggles his schoolwork and scholarship applications with school clubs, work, and being supportive of his family.

“I have five siblings and my mom’s a single parent. I’m the oldest of the six kids she has, so they rely on me for a lot. I work here part time. And then most of the money goes to help them pay bills and stuff like that. It’s hard balancing course work and having time to support my family,” he says. “I’ve had [frustrating moments] a lot, but just seeing my family and like wanting to do better for them has been like a really big motivational course in my life and academic journey."

“Jonah’s kind of an example of [students who manage their time well],” says Melanie Bocanegra, director of the STEM program at SMC. “He works, he takes really difficult classes and he still has time to do STEM club and Engineering club, and he manages it all and he helps with family. But he has to have himself on a very strict timeline to get it all done.”

Okike-Hephzibah even co-founded the BIY Robotics Club on campus with Club President Christopher “Reign” DeRenzo. “He shows excellent communication and networking skills by bringing new students to the club and actively participating in administrative meetings and workshop activities,” says DeRenzo. “No matter what is happening, Jonah will always bring a positive attitude that lights up the room and an open-minded opinion to every meeting which helps accelerate progress.”

However, according to Okike-Hephzibah, he was not always a stellar student. “In high school, I was not the best student at all. I goofed off a lot. I focused on athletics more than I did on academics. I realized that wasn’t really going to take me anywhere. Especially since like if you’re an athlete and you get injured, that’s the end of your career sometimes,” he says.

“I definitely was set on trying to go pro, or in some way in make money with it. I wasn’t all that good to be honest. I got a lot of minor injuries that started to add up and it’s starting to take a toll on my body and stuff. I got knee injuries from basketball and ankle injuries from volleyball.”

Toward the end of high school, he decided to put a bigger emphasis on academics than sports. “A few of my friends were going off to four-year universities because they actually took academics seriously. I didn’t do too well, I didn’t really get accepted to places,” he says. “I did get a few scholarships for sports and stuff, but they were nowhere that I wanted to go to. Around that time, I was like, I should really just focus more on academics because there’s a lot more opportunities for success in academics.”

Before high school, Okike-Hephzibah attended an academy in London, England, where he lived before moving out to California at the age of 11. Shortly after moving, he began to feel like an outcast, because he was bullied for having an accent.

“I lost the accent when I came out here ten years ago. It’s very easy to pick up and lose things at that age… They would get me for not being able to understand me, and I kind of grew tired of that, so I decided to lose it,” he says. “It was a very easy process. I just listened to the way people were talking, and I’d mimic what they were saying. Eventually it became a habit. I do [regret it], I honestly do. I would sound probably like ten times smarter, too. People would believe everything I say.”

Beyond school in London, high school, and SMC, Okike-Hephzibah is not completely decided on what school he wants to transfer to. “There’s a lot of conflict of interest,” he says. “If I go to one place, I have to give up certain things. If I go to another, then I get different things. I’m just trying to see which one is worth it.”

Even though his school isn’t decided, he does have an idea of what he wants to do with his future. “I do want to start my own business sometime in the future,” says Okike-Hephzibah. “I’m not exactly sure in what yet. It’s definitely sure it’s going to be in engineering, but I’m not exactly sure what specific field yet.”

Bocanegra, who Okike-Hephzibah often approaches for advice concerning any obstacles he’s tackling, agrees with the idea students have formed of him.

“He’s so humble, I don’t think he even realizes how hard he works. I think he doesn’t like the attention and I think it shows in how he approaches his studies and work. It’s all just about the question at hand or understanding the material and not about making a name for himself,” she says. “I think it’s good to stay humble in any science field. He’s too humble, I think. He could brag a little more!”