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Buffalo State Grad Wins People's Choice Award through Ignite Buffalo

Buffalo State Grad Wins People's Choice Award through Ignite Buffalo

Posted: July 24, 2018

Buffalo State College alumna Aitina Fareed-Cooke, '12, '16, found refuge in her camera.

From losing her birth mother at a young age to dealing with suicidal thoughts as a teenager, she honed her photography skills as a way of coping with her problems. Now her dedication to her craft has paid off, with a $100,000 award from Ignite Buffalo for her company, Get Fokus'd Productions.

“It was definitely a gamechanger and a shocker,” she said. “I’m just amazed, and excited for the opportunities that can happen from it.”

Fareed-Cooke’s struggles started in the womb. Her mother used drugs while she was pregnant. When she was 14 months old, she was taken from her mother with her sister and brother, and placed into foster care, due to neglect.

“When I turned three, we lost my mother to a drug overdose,” she said, noting that she was adopted with her siblings at age seven by her foster mother. From there, times were tough, Fareed-Cooke said. She battled with low self-esteem, and had to deal with the fact that she looks just like her mother. “That’s what I saw when I looked in the mirror,” she said. “The reflection of her.”

In her teenage years, Fareed-Cooke dealt with depression, and tried to take her own life. She became involved with a community organization which helped her to see that there was more to life than what she had experienced. She ended up working with CEPA Gallery and photography.

“There was something about CEPA Gallery that helped,” she said. “Going into that dark room, watching photos and images develop on that paper—it’s something from nothing. It’s just that idea that really excited me.” The more she got into photography, the more she began to realize that there’s more to life than what she saw outside of her house everyday. “I began to want more,” she said. “I began to develop within my mind.”

While her adopted mother pushed her to look at going to Buffalo State, Fareed-Cooke also points to the community, and organizations that help struggling youth realize that there is more to life.

“There was hope because the community came together and thought, ‘hey, let’s create this program and help youth to grow,’” she said.

Fareed-Cooke wanted to stay in Buffalo for college, and Buffalo State made sense. She gravitated to the smaller class sizes, and felt like she could manage the space well. “Buff State felt like community,” she said. “I felt embraced from the moment that I decided that’s where I wanted to go.”

Over the summer between graduation and her freshman year, Fareed-Cooke took classes on campus, and acclimated to the college atmosphere. During her first year at Buffalo State, tragedy struck again: Her best friend committed suicide. Her mentors and advisors pushed her to stay in school, but Fareed-Cooke decided to leave.

“I made the choice to leave,” she said, “and during that time away, I fell into a whole bunch of foolishness in my life. Very dark spaces in my life.”

Despite the detour, Fareed-Cooke was able to get back on track, and ended up graduating from Erie County Community College. From there, she went back to Buffalo State.

“I was embraced back into the community at Buff State,” she said, adding that several professors in the English Department helped her develop. “I would go to their office and ask questions. Everywhere I went, I felt like those professors cared.”

Fareed-Cooke needed that care. “I needed that love, that feeling of, ‘you matter,’” she said. “That’s what I got. I really feel that’s what helped me along.” After graduating with her bachelor’s degree in English, Fareed-Cooke went for her graduate degree in educational technology, graduating in 2016.

Marnie Letzelter, assistant to the Dean of the Graduate School, said Fareed-Cooke is the type of student that defines what Buffalo State is all about. “She has overcome significant adversity in her life but never allows it to define her,” she said. “Instead, she takes each challenge and views it as an opportunity to continue demanding more of herself.” According to Letzelter, Fareed-Cooke had high praise for the school on a recent visit to let her office know about the Ignite Buffalo award.  

“When she stopped in to share her good news, she told me that she's as successful as she is because ‘we’ never gave up on her and ‘we’ never let her give up on herself,” she said. “When she tried to submit mediocre work, she was told that she can do better - and so she did. She is as genuine as she is kind and as gracious as she is ambitious. She makes me proud of the work we do and the students we help find their paths.”

Fareed-Cooke started Get Fokus'd Productions in 2012, but she’s been a full-time entrepreneur for the last year and a half. The Ignite Buffalo money will allow her to explore different opportunities with the company, as well as establish a an expansion strategy in order to reach more youth in Buffalo and beyond. She’s also looking to invest in more equipment in order to increase the number of youth she works with.  

While providing photography and video services, she also teaches younger people photography. To Fareed-Cooke, it’s more than just teaching the basics. “I’m teaching them photography skills,” she said. “I’m teaching them interviewing skills and how to be confident when you’re talking to someone. Eye contact, engagement. Developing and understanding that, yes, photography is this tool, but there are other jobs that connect to it.”

Add to that the life lessons she can pass on, and Fareed-Cooke is thrilled to be where she is, teaching the art that she loves so much.

 “I’m passionate because I’ve experienced so much in my life,” she said. “I knew when I was a teen that I wanted to work with young people. I know what it is to be young, and to deal with loss. I know what it is to feel isolated, lonely, sad, and depressed. And I know what it is to have hope.”

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