Matt Cook ’17 knows the value of an encouraging nudge to dream bigger. Now he provides that support for other young adults.

By Kris Dreessen

Matt Cook ’21 has had people push him to do and be better throughout his life. In high school, teachers saw what the distracted, loud teen could do and motivated him to focus. The nudges took him to Geneseo, where professors again challenged him to meet his goals, then think bigger for his future.

“I have been very lucky to have had people who constantly looked out for me and constantly helped me to stay on a path,” says Cook.

Cook grew up in the City of Rochester and attended a small, suburban school through an Urban Suburban program. He received individual attention to thrive there, while graduation rates in Rochester were only 30 percent. As a Geneseo student, Cook found support in many places: the Access Opportunity Program (AOP), the departments of history, international relations and political science, Students Against Social Injustice, Phi Alpha Delta pre-law fraternity, Kappa Sigma fraternity and the College Democrats club.

That encouragement inspired him to give back. In addition to volunteering with many efforts, including Livingston CARES, the annual MLK Day of Service, and Make Your Mark undergraduate philanthropy committee, Cook was one of two Geneseo students elected as Geneseo village trustees in 2017. Cook also served two years as deputy mayor. In doing so, he became part of local history, being the second African American to hold public office in Livingston County.

“It is a shame that such a low number of African Americans have held office,” says Cook, “but I was being part of the change. I felt I could help make a difference with college and community relations. It was a great experience.”

Cook has since expanded his civic engagement to begin a new career giving other young adults those encouraging pushes as they enter the workforce. 

Cook was invited to join the board of directors for Be Your Own Hero (BYOH) in 2019 and left a job in sales to lead the nonprofit organization as interim director less than a year later. BYOH provides education and support for young adults ages 16 to 24 in western New York, helping them discover their interests and aptitudes and learn what work environment might suit them best. It teaches young adults about well-paying, stable industry jobs and identifies openings for individuals that are a good fit.

BYOH works with more than 70 high schools, several colleges, a program that assists paroled young adults, and a large network of employers. In addition to teaching resume-writing and other crucial career skills, Cook and his crew organize industry speaker workshops, resume reviews, mock interviews, and a regular job fair that attracts more than 1,000 young adults. 

“We don’t let students or young adults fall behind who don’t know what career they want, or for whom college isn’t a choice,” says Cook. “Be Your Own Hero is an advocate for young people, but it’s really about realizing you’re in charge of your future. You have to be your number-one driving force. If you are, the sky is the limit.”

As interim director, Cook has led BYOH through the pandemic, focusing on building its social media presence, creating wider employer networks and completing a new website. They also launched a six-week virtual immersion program. Cook leads strategic and daily decisions, manages and initiates employer and program contracts, grants and funding.

Cook pushes himself every day with great reward. He’s learned he excels in this environment — and he’s learned the importance of consistent self-reflection.

“In this role, I have focused on how my brain works, the natural way that I go about things in my life, and my preferred ways of dealing with adversity,” says Cook. “I have taken this knowledge and leaned into the discomfort to make myself the most impactful leader that I can be. This has been extremely hard for me, as all habits are hard to break, but it’s important. I am always pushing myself to make positive changes in my thoughts, behaviors and habits to be the best version of myself.”

No one can succeed alone in effecting change, says Cook. Being a part of the Geneseo community taught him the importance of help in reaching goals, which is what BYOH is all about.

“Those Geneseo experiences taught me that giving back is the most important thing we can do in this life,” says Cook. “My mother and father, Tina and George Cook, told my siblings and me that they never wanted us to be like them, they wanted us to be better than them — to go farther than them. And that’s what I want to give to the students and young adults who make up our future.”