2022 Distinguished Alumni Award Recipient
SYA alumni, faculty and others make amazing things happen in the world.
The SYA Awards Committee is pleased to announce that this year's award recipient is Cheo Hodari Coker ES'89 for his outstanding contributions to and leadership in his professional endeavors.
SYA Awards Committee
Allison Bacon ES'81, Chair
Donald Austin FR'01-07RD, Head of Newark Academy
Annabelle Brown Fowlkes FR'90 FR'22P
Julian Fu CN'06
Nahin Jorgge IT'06
Peter Kirby FR'79
Holland Goss Lynch FR'86
Darcy McLean ES'01
This year’s recipient of the SYA Distinguished Alumni award is Cheo Hodari Coker ES’89. Described as a “provocative, revolutionary storyteller,” Coker’s impressive career includes his work as a showrunner, journalist, author, screenwriter, producer and, more recently, college lecturer.
Fellow SYA classmate and nominator Wanda Mann writes, “I know I'm not alone in feeling a sense of joy and pride whenever I see Cheo's name in the credits of a film or television show. And, I love being able to shout out, ‘I went to school with him in Spain!’ when I hear someone raving about one of Cheo's productions. My SYA memories include being in the classroom with Cheo. His talent as a writer, love and knowledge of music and the arts, and inquisitive nature made a lasting impression. The creativity and determination of teenage Cheo are visible today in his body of professional work. For this reason, I jumped at the opportunity to nominate Cheo for the Distinguished Alumni Award. Cheo's success in Hollywood has reaffirmed that SYA did more than hone our language skills; our year in Barcelona nurtured our talents and was a building block to achieving our dreams.”
Growing up in Storrs, Conn., Coker attended SYA Spain as a junior from The Hotchkiss School. While hip-hop was his lifeline to his cultural identity in the States, his pre-Internet time in Barcelona had a significant impact on his career trajectory. “Being cut off from hip-hop and R&B made me fall in love with jazz,” Coker explains. Bebop maestros Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie became fast favorites, and former SYA English Instructor Gary Hendrickson helped Coker locate and sharpen the writing voice he used to examine them. Upon learning the news of Coker’s award, Hendrickson reminisced about Coker’s being “uniquely independent and self-sufficient, a brilliant reader and his approach to papers’ matter honestly and confidently. He was unafraid to address injustice and at 16 years old he seemed to know how to be in the world — a testament to his impressive emotional, social and intellectual maturity. And he was absolutely hilarious.”
Coker’s uncanny ability to simultaneously capture a particular racial or cultural experience and present it in an authentic yet universally appealing way, is, he says, a direct outgrowth of his year in Barcelona with SYA. He now leads a workshop with a select group of students workshopping a single idea into the first act of a television show while also shaping their individual script ideas as a means of teaching basic television writing structure.
His body of work includes his start as a Los Angeles Times pop music staff writer; profiling iconic hip hop artists for several influential magazines; authored his first book, The Life, Death, and Afterlife of The Notorious B.I.G., which was also adapted into a movie with screenwriting credits; television work on several shows leading up to his role as showrunner on Marvel’s Luke Cage; co-writer on Creed II with Sylvester Stallone and uncredited work on Straight Outta Compton.
Board Chair Holland Goss Lynch FR’86 said, “Cheo is a shining example of an SYA alum who has made a tremendous impact through his chosen field. His storytelling speaks directly to the heart of SYA’s mission: the adventure of learning about different languages, cultures, and people, and we are deeply honored that he credits his year in Barcelona as key to his professional success.”
Upon learning the news, Coker said, “I’m so honored and flattered to be given this award. School Year Abroad changed my life. The ability to speak and think in another language gives you a confidence that is immeasurable, no matter what your chosen profession is. You feel unstoppable — because you are. The world opens up. And when you don’t understand something, you learn to slow things down until you do. What seems impossible is no longer intimidating. Journalism, writing my first book, writing my first screenplay, running my first television show, believe it not, all stems from my time in Spain. Hotchkiss made Stanford easy, but I wouldn’t have even gotten into Stanford had it not been for SYA Spain and the teachers, fellow students and the host family who helped me grow so much.
"The TWA Terminal we took off from at JFK is now a hotel and the school at the Rambla de Cataluna is now in Zaragoza, but, the memories, even 35 years old, are vibrant.
"My year in Barcelona is something I think about cada dia, but no matter where you do your year abroad, it stays with you.
"Thank you Woody [Halsey], H [Gary Hendrickson], the McCanns, friends like 'The Coalition' (Tony Arthur and Ben Goodman), Wanda, Buffy, Channing, Sensimone, Ted, and so many others. My thoughts are also with those who are no longer with us: Earl Bethel, Claudia de Quesada and Sr. Angel Vilalta. Everyone I spent that year with is a part of my family.
"If my time in Spain could be summarized in song, I’d pick one that was all over the radio when we were there. You’ll have to hit the link to find out — but I’ll give you this hint: it’s perfection."
- Watch Cheo and fellow panelists at our 2019 event in LA on "The Role of Media as it Relates to Global Issues."
- Cheo credits SYA with boosting his cultural confidence in this article.
- What's on the horizon? Check out his IMDB listing.