Next fall, when Zack Okun starts his college career at Barrett, The Honors College at Arizona State University, he’ll have just enough course credits to make him a second-semester sophomore — even though he’s graduating from high school this spring.
Okun, a member of Temple Kol Ami and high-achieving senior at Desert Mountain High School in Scottsdale, recently won two large and prestigious scholarships, and a host of smaller ones, for his scholastic aptitude and hard work this year. His dad, Chad Okun, is “blown away” by his son’s accomplishments, but Zack, who “thrives on involvement,” just feels better when he has a pile of tasks in front of him.
“I do my best work when I have a lot of goals,” he told Jewish News.
One of those early goals was to share his love of STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education. In 2019, he started STEMducate, a nonprofit for STEM education that has reached more than 10,000 kids across the nation and the world. He began by making simple kits filled with materials for STEM projects and giving them to local elementary students.
Once the COVID-19 pandemic set in and people were spending much of their time online, he realized he could expand by creating digital curricula and providing virtual resources. As it grew, he enlisted several of his friends to help. They split up fundraising, marketing, communication and other responsibilities. With its nonprofit status, STEMducate also qualified for Google advertising grants, which allowed them to grow exponentially. Every year, Okun’s team hosts the STEM Olympiad, where students can compete in groups using the skills they have learned to create a range of projects related to STEM.
“I found a passion for STEM education when I was young by doing robotics and science. I put the education to use in the classroom and seeing a real-world application is exciting. Being able to share that now and helping other people find their passion is inspiring,” he said.
That passion is paying off for Okun, literally. He is one of 20 Arizona students to win the Flinn Scholarship, which covers tuition, fees, housing and meals at one of Arizona’s public universities, plus study abroad, making it worth approximately $130,000.
More than 1,000 students apply for the state’s most competitive and prestigious award.
“These 20 students, from 20 different high schools, show that incredibly high-achieving students are found throughout Arizona,” said Anne Lassen, Flinn Foundation vice president, scholarship and education initiatives.
While that was the most lucrative scholarship Okun received this year, he was also one of 150 — and only three Arizonans — chosen out of 91,000 applicants for another prestigious award. The Coca-Cola Scholars Program scholarship, which provides $20,000 and entrance to “a diverse community of over 6,600 fellow change makers who are creating a better-shared future,” according to its website, offers him access to a national network of equally hard-working individuals.
“Both scholarships are incredibly exciting to me. The Flinn award brings a great alumni network in the state and the Coca-Cola one means I can connect to students across the country,” Okun said.
He was advised by his counselors to apply for as many scholarships as he could and expect to get one or maybe two. But he’s done better than that, and while not as remunerative as the Flinn and Coca-Cola scholarships, each award is meaningful.
He takes some gentle ribbing from some of his high-achieving friends in his robotics club over his success. “I was in robotics when I got a couple calls telling me I won a scholarship and my friends said, ‘Save some for the rest of us!’ I appreciate the acknowledgement but I want to spread the wealth, too,” he said.
Okun’s life isn’t all just hard work and goal setting. He also likes to have fun hanging out with his friends, watching television and cooking for his family. During the pandemic, he started experimenting with recipes, trying to imitate his favorite restaurant dishes. Sushi is a particular favorite.
Since his bar mitzvah, Zack hasn’t been that involved with synagogue life but is a member of his high school’s Jewish student union. He intends to join Hillel next year and has already signed up for the student newsletter.
Once he gets to Barrett, he’ll join his older brother Jake — another high achiever and award winner — as a mechanical and robotics engineering major.
“My brother and I are very close. Going to ASU was a no brainer and now we get to keep working together,” he said. JN