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From Marine to McNair Scholar, a Story of Motivation

David Kok

If you tell me I can’t do something, I’m going to push myself as hard as I can to do it.

David Kok is the first to admit that he doesn’t take a challenge lightly.

“If you tell me I can’t do something, I’m going to push myself as hard as I can to do it,” he says.  And he means it.

The Cal Poly Pomona alumnus is embarking on his first year as a graduate student studying materials science and engineering at the University of California, Irvine, and though it’s only the beginning of a very intense academic endeavor, he’s well prepared for it.

Kok was born in San Francisco and raised in Los Angeles. Growing up as the child of first-generation immigrants, money was tight and the city offered its fair share of adversities.

By the time he was in high school, Kok was eager to broaden his horizons beyond graduation.

“I needed an outlet to escape the confines of Los Angeles,” Kok says. “There are a lot of negative influences that surrounded you, and I wasn’t that great of a student. Joining the Marines seemed like a huge challenge. I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it.”

Kok served as infantryman in the Kandahar province of Afghanistan from 2005 to 2006 and in the Al-Anbar province of Iraq from 2006 to 2007.

When he left active duty in 2008, Kok enrolled at Mt. San Antonio College to begin his academic career.

Kok had ambitions of becoming a doctor, but his academic advisor expressed skepticism about his chances of success.

Kok considered his advisor’s concern a challenge.

Feeling that chemistry would offer an even greater challenge than medicine, Kok enrolled at Cal Poly Pomona in 2011.

Kok admits the transition from the strict and regimented life of a marine to the freedom of college was drastic. He says he owes a lot to the Cal Poly Pomona’s McNair Scholars Program.

“It had the most impact on me,” Kok says. “I learned a lot about graduate school and gained the skills that made my application successful.”

The federally funded program named in honor of Ronald Erwin McNair, one of the first African-American astronauts, is designed to increase the number of low-income, first-generation students in doctoral degree programs.

The program prepares students for the rigors of doctoral study and careers in college teaching through research internships.

Kok worked as a researcher under the guidance McNair Scholars Program Director Winny Dong. He says the experience made a big impact on his transition to UC Irvine.

“Being prepared to be a researcher is a huge deal,” Kok says. “The program, my experience and Cal Poly’s wonderful chemistry department really prepared me for what I’m doing now.”

And he has plenty of plans beyond his educational trek.

“My childhood dream has always been to become an astronaut,” he says. “I’m not sure it’s going to happen but I’m going to try for it. But I do see myself in academia. Teaching and being able to pass on knowledge is critical, and I want to be able to do my part.”

Published on December 19, 2014

Impact Map

Explore Impact Map

The Impact Map shows how Cal Poly Pomona alumni are making a difference in Southern California and around the country. Explore the map or share your own impact.

Explore the map

Submit Your Story