For The University of Texas at Austin graduation weekend in May, Ricky Cooks plans to don his cap, wear his gown and walk with his head held high — across his front porch.
This may not be the graduation celebration he was expecting, but it is one he is eagerly looking forward to.
“It will be a small friends-and-family event,” he explained of the faux graduation planned by the Tejas Club for the Tejas House in West Campus. The Tejas Club, which Cooks is a member of, is one of the oldest student organizations at UT Austin and was founded on the principles of friendship, leadership and scholarship. “Our parents will see us walk, and I am so excited to be with the people that I love so much and am grateful I will be able to enjoy moments like this while I can.”
Cooks will be graduating with a government major and a business minor. An outstanding senior from the class of 2021, Cooks came to UT on a full ride as a Forty Acres scholar wanting to lift up local communities through business and finance. However, he soon realized that, to have the greatest impact on the issues he was most passionate about, a government degree suited him better.
Cooks got right to work the moment he set foot on campus, joining UT’s Student Government (SG) as a freshman. He figured that it would be an effective way to learn about governance and policy, and that it would give him a platform to eventually enact positive change on campus.
“I was eager to be a part of something, and my interests in government and policy led me to SG,” he says. “I was familiar with the Longhorn Legislative Aides, or LLA program, in SG from a previous director. I had seen how much he loved the program, and once I realized that it was for freshman students, I figured it was the best option for me.” The LLA agency is an organization that strives to integrate first-year students into UT Austin by providing resources, building a community and creating leaders all while working on various initiatives and advocacy projects on and around campus and in the Austin community.
Cooks says that as part of LLA, he met some of his closest friends at UT Austin and was able to learn so much about the intricacies of advocacy. He enjoyed his experience so much that he applied and became co-director of the agency, became a mentor himself and helped guide 21 UT freshmen through their college experiences.
“They became the center focus of my sophomore year,” he says. “Facilitating their student leadership and watching them grow personally was an experience that I’ll never forget.” Some of the initiatives that his mentees tackled include helping feed an entire elementary school in Austin for Thanksgiving.
Cooks went on to serve as the SG chief of staff, overlooking the entire organization from a managerial perspective. He worked directly under then-President Camron Goodman and then-Vice President Amie Jean (an outstanding senior from the class of 2020), helping to enact their platform goals alongside the rest of the executive board.
“I grew up through SG, and it was probably one of the most impactful organizations I joined in college. It taught me how complicated issues can be, and how important it is to always have the best interest of students at heart,” he says. “I hit plenty of walls throughout the years, but the small victories in helping my fellow students and Austin community made it all the worth it.”
When asked about some of his favorite UT courses, Cooks mentioned Constitutional Interpretation with professor H.W. Perry Jr. in particular and how that class helped him uncover his interests in policy and law. “I learned that there’s so many nuances to legal opinions, and it was crazy to see how the court has shaped the world that we live in today,” he says.
Today, having also served as an outreach student leader for UT Outpost and a U.S. House of Representatives legislative intern in Washington, D.C., Cooks knows that whatever he ends up doing, it will be within the realms of civic engagement and political communications.
Cooks is eager to see what awaits in his future. “No matter what I do immediately after I graduate, I’m so excited to see how things develop,” he says. “I got a holistic look at life, a holistic college experience, and that I just would not trade for anything.”
Finally, when asked what advice he would give to incoming students, Cooks replied: “Always remember to take care of yourself. It’s crucial to really find that work-life balance. And while everyone says that, people forget and sometimes it’s a lot easier said than done.”