Stepping out of the pool and onto the concrete decking at Arizona State University for her last match as an undergraduate athlete, Nikki Cooke was thankful. Because of the several scholarships she received throughout her time at that university, she felt independent, confident, and valued.

In Cooke’s new role as assistant director for leadership gifts in the Virginia Tech College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, she holds her personal experience close in appreciating why fundraising and donor relations are so important to universities.

“Scholarships allowed me to go to college out of state and helped me be less of a burden to my parents,” she said. “And while in college, these merit-based and athletic funding resources held me to a high standard.”

While growing up in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Cooke witnessed the link between students and those who provide funding resources, as her mother worked in advancement at the University of Michigan.

During her undergraduate years at Arizona State, she received student-athlete scholarships in addition to merit-based funding. A member of the honors college, she majored in global heath and global studies.

But before joining Virginia Tech, Cooke took a different path from traditional fundraising. Her college sport was water polo, and she had the opportunity to spend six months in the Australian National Water Polo League. From there, she returned to Arizona, where she spent a year at her alma matter as a graduate assistant for the water polo program.

Then Cooke landed a job as a sales representative at Yelp Inc., a local-search service powered by a crowdsourced review forum run by an American multinational corporation. She soon became an account manager in its Scottsdale, Arizona, office.

During the four years she worked at Yelp, she began a master’s program in public health at George Washington University, which she is in the process of completing.

“Nikki brings a fresh perspective to our college,” said Daniel Cleveland, assistant dean of advancement in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences. “With the people skills she honed while at Yelp and her strong desire to help establish connections between donors and opportunities in service to the college, she’s a great addition to our team.”

Cooke said what drew her to her position at Virginia Tech is similar to what appealed to her at Yelp and in the public health field. It’s the desire to help others.

“What draws me to advancement is connecting people with mutual interests,” she said. “It’s the idea of finding a need and being able to fill it.”

Cooke first came to Blacksburg because her husband, Kody Cooke, accepted the position of associate director of strengthening and conditioning for football at Virginia Tech in 2017. She joined him in May 2018 and began her position in late October.

“I’m amazed by Virginia Tech, especially this college,” she said. “Whenever I meet with faculty members, I get inspired because they’re doing such transformative work. I want to share their contributions. It ties back to helping and connecting people.”

Written by Leslie King