As a high school senior, Illinois native Stephanie Coker BA’97 knew she wanted to go to college, but The University of Texas at Dallas wasn’t on her radar. A full scholarship offer from the University quickly changed that, making the growing school her No. 1 pick.
“I honestly didn’t know about UT Dallas, but in my family finances were tight,” Stephanie said. “The Academic Excellence Scholarship was life-changing. I didn’t realize the quality of education I was getting until I was on the other side.”
Stephanie’s class was the first group of incoming freshmen eligible to receive the scholarship, which is awarded based on standardized test scores and high school class rank. Because of the scholarship, an influx of students arrived at UT Dallas in the fall of 1993 — a year that would mark the launch of some beloved University traditions and student organizations.
“We had a ton of fun,” she said. “It was a small group of students who were forging a new path. We were working hard to balance the academic rigor and keeping our scholarships with being kids and having fun. We were all working our tails off to be successful, but creating that space to be kids.”
One of the traditions Stephanie helped shepherd was Homecoming. Although another student created the first official Homecoming event in 1994, Stephanie continued the celebration in 1995 with a co-chair and committee of fellow students.
“We held the dance in the lobby of the electrical engineering building, and we decorated it like it was a French café,” she said.
Stephanie’s husband, whom she met as a Peer Advisor at freshman orientation, also attended the second annual UT Dallas Homecoming, which Stephanie and her co-chair branded as “A Night Under the Stars.”
“It wasn’t really a time where alumni came back to campus,” Mark Coker BS’98 said. “It was more a chance to celebrate and create traditions.”
Today, Homecoming is a four-day affair, complete with a parade, fashion show, basketball game, concert and 5K race. Since 1994, the tradition has grown into an annual event that both students and alumni can enjoy.
Now, the Cokers are not just proud alums, they’re also proud parents of a UT Dallas freshman. Their son, Wes, developed a fondness for the University after years of attending summer Chess Camp on campus.
“I think it felt like a sense of home to him,” Mark said. “He felt like it was the best fit for him.”
And like his parents, Wes is also the recipient of the Academic Excellence Scholarship.
“UT Dallas has been so generous to make awesome education available for bright students,” Stephanie said. “We’re extremely grateful for their financial support. The University has truly changed the trajectory of our lives.”
Although the Cokers reside in Georgia where they both work at Mark’s pediatric practice, the couple still returns to Dallas frequently and has been able to follow the progress of their once-small University.
“Every time we go on campus, it feels like our little baby is all grown up,” Stephanie said. “We’re so proud of how well thought out and how well planned it is; it’s coming together very intentionally.”
“The quality of the University has grown,” Mark said. “It’s emerged as a real powerhouse, but it hasn’t compromised the quality.”