David Kok '14, Chemistry

David Kok

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 (’14, Chemistry) is a first-year graduate student studying materials science and engineering at UC Irvine. Although it’s the beginning of an 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 put up a gauntlet of adversity.

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,” he 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 infantry assaultman 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 resume his academic trek.

Kok had ambitions of becoming a doctor, but his academic advisor expressed skepticism. Kok took his advisor’s concern as a challenge.

Feeling that chemistry would be a tougher obstacle 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, who was one of the first African-American astronauts, is designed to increase the number of low-income, first-generation students in doctoral-degree programs.

The curriculum prepares students for the rigors of doctoral study and careers in higher education by providing 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.”

He has higher goals beyond his educational arc.

“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.”