For Mary Kathryn Covert Steel, going to college was far from a certainty. She grew up in a blue-collar family with a dad who drove a bulldozer and a mom who was a secretary. For much of her childhood, the family didn’t have a car. Because she never took college for granted, Mary Kathryn studied hard at her public school, which was recently ranked among the worst in the nation. She worried she didn’t have the body of knowledge or the standardized test scores she needed for an elite college, but she was determined to excel as much as possible.
One of the things she developed early was a passion for anti-tobacco advocacy and voters’ rights. While she was in middle school, she co-founded the Partnership for a Healthy Mississippi, which educates students about the health dangers of tobacco use. She was motivated by her family’s smoking-related health issues to contribute what she could to improve the health of people in her state.
Mary Kathryn applied for a Coca-Cola Scholarship because she had limited resources and few options that could fund her college education.
“I walked out of the interview thinking I wasn’t qualified to be there,” she remembers. “Ericia Ward-Williams gave me a big hug and told me that I got there on my own merit. It was the first time a group of people outside of my small town really believed in me.”
Ultimately, Mary Kathryn was awarded a National Coca-Cola Scholarship, which was “more money than I could imagine.” She went to Samford University in Birmingham, AL, and had an amazing, eye-opening experience that culminated in her becoming a national finalist for the Rhodes Scholarship. While not being selected as a Rhodes Scholar was disappointing, the Coca-Cola Scholars Foundation led her to a paid internship at The Coca-Cola Company that changed her life. That experience broadened her outlook, fulfilled her need to seek solutions to today’s big problems and resulted in a full-time job.
“Through working in the then-emerging field of corporate responsibility, I really found my niche,” she explains. “I had incredible opportunities to communicate Coca-Cola’s work in water stewardship and the environment. I found myself standing next to Bono at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, and I wondered how a little girl from Meridian ever got there. It was truly the result of what the Coca-Cola Scholars Foundation did for me.”
After a few years in Atlanta, Mary Kathryn accepted a position with FTI Consulting, a global business advisory firm that has The Coca-Cola Company as one of its clients. In the firm’s strategic communications office in Washington, DC, she runs the healthcare practice and helps businesses identify partners and programs to improve health in the developing and the developed world. PR News also recently named her one of the “15 Rising Stars of PR.”
“Business has an opportunity to be a force for good in the world,” she says. “The work we do holds corporations accountable and spurs them to do the right thing. Our team is committed to fighting injustice and I’m fortunate to work with people who share this vision and believe in what we’re doing.”
For Mary Kathryn, becoming a Coca-Cola Scholar was transformational. “Without the scholarship, my life would have been very different,” she says. “They offered me so much and asked for so little in return. This is an organization that gives and gives and gives.”
The Coca-Cola Scholars network also helped her find her place in the nation’s capital, where she has served as a Regional Connections Coordinator, organizing service projects such as the International Coastal Cleanup and social events such as bowling at the White House. Referring to her fellow scholars, Mary Kathryn says, “We really want to help each other be the best that we can be. The level of commitment to achieve a vision is amazingly strong in all Coke Scholars. It’s the thread that unites us and our collective impact will be unlimited.”