Incoming Students 2020

POSTED ON: September 15, 2020

Danena Thompson, Jacob Khalili, and Innua Robinson, new members of the Cooper community

Danena Thompson, Jacob Khalili, and Innua Robinson, new members of the Cooper community

Despite this year’s many adjustments and improvisations, at least three members of Cooper’s incoming class have arrived with their plans and expectations intact. Innua Robinson of the School of Art, The Irwin S. Chanin School of Architecture’s Danena Thompson, and Jacob Khalili of the Albert Nerken School of Engineering are as ambitious as any other set of Cooper students about what they hope to accomplish during their years here, whether on campus or in the virtual classroom.

Danena attended Truman High School in the Bronx, having immigrated there from Jamaica three years earlier. But even before arriving in New York, she knew she wanted to be an architect. “When I was seven, my brother was attending technical school, and he had to build a fan.” Danena decided she wanted to build one too, but hers, she says, “was more like a windmill. His had to blow on mine for mine to work!” That hands-on experience of trying to problem solve, along with her love of drawing, prompted her brother to suggest she consider architecture. The idea took.

She learned about The Cooper Union from her college advisor, Alex Raike, and she credits him with encouraging her to apply: she herself didn’t think she had a chance. But when she received the studio test, she was excited by the prompts. She found the test “a bit stressful, but a good kind of stress. It really gave you the chance to represent yourself and your capabilities.” Remarkably, her close friend from Truman, Aresha Gill, is also a new student at Cooper studying engineering.

When came to the East Village to hand in her studio test, she was struck by the exterior of Cooper’s two buildings, though as of this interview, she’s yet to be inside either. Nonetheless, she feels that there is a community at Cooper that will be a good fit for her, noting that she received multiple calls from the school, including one from Dean Tehrani. She’s hoping her teachers will be tough but supportive. “That’s how I like them,” she said.

Her fellow New Yorker, Jacob Khalili, grew up in Brooklyn and attended Yeshiva of Flatbush. Active in that school’s community service group—Archon National Service Society—he was drawn to The Cooper Union because of the caliber of its students and its sense of community. He was impressed by “the faculty's relationships to the students. They were willing to talk to me even though I wasn't even admitted yet.”

While still in high school, he interned at Memorial Sloan Kettering, a comprehensive cancer center in Manhattan, to work with computational biologists to develop a deep learning algorithm used to detect and track hundreds of nuclei in the embryos of roundworms in three-dimensional space. After graduating, he moved to Tel Aviv where he was an intern for Sightec where he again used deep learning algorithms to help pilots classify and identify vehicles on autonomous drones.

Jacob, who will be studying electrical engineering, is an accomplished videographer with his own company, JK Media. He’s organized hackathons, and taught introduction to Artificial Intelligence/Deep Learning, AP computer science, and how to build apps for Alexa known as ”skills.”  With that drive to teach, it’s not surprising to hear that he was drawn to the focused curriculum at Cooper as well as its small student–to–teacher ratio.

Innua Robinson, a member of the latest class in the School of Art, says she can’t exactly pinpoint the first time she heard about The Cooper Union: her mother is part of a group of artists and activists in the Bay Area who mentioned Cooper to Innua myriad times. “Cooper was like a myth. So especially when I got interested in my art, everybody started talking about Cooper.”

That mythology loomed larger when she received the studio test: “It was a very interesting experience for me. I haven’t had training that involves prompts it felt like live or die, a bodily objective—like I had to do it. That atmosphere really pulled work out of me.”

For one of the prompts, she realized that she could respond quite literally or take a risk with something more personal. She chose the latter, visually capturing the sensation of feeling hemmed in by cultural signifiers different from her own. That feeling had been prompted by a visit to her grandmother’s conservative church where she felt herself an object of disapproval for not wearing a bra. She captured the episode—and more specifically, the emotions it evoked— in a painting made over the top of collaged pages from the Book of Genesis.

Right now Innua, who grew up partly in Richmond, California and partly on a remote island off of northern British Columbia, plans to focus on painting and printmaking at Cooper. In the future, she has no interest in showing in galleries—"the gallery system grosses me out"—and instead sees herself as a muralist working with communities. It's a natural direction considering her roots among artists and activists, an impulse to combine the two.


  • Founded by inventor, industrialist and philanthropist Peter Cooper in 1859, The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art offers education in art, architecture and engineering, as well as courses in the humanities and social sciences.

  • “My feelings, my desires, my hopes, embrace humanity throughout the world,” Peter Cooper proclaimed in a speech in 1853. He looked forward to a time when, “knowledge shall cover the earth as waters cover the great deep.”

  • From its beginnings, Cooper Union was a unique institution, dedicated to founder Peter Cooper's proposition that education is the key not only to personal prosperity but to civic virtue and harmony.

  • Peter Cooper wanted his graduates to acquire the technical mastery and entrepreneurial skills, enrich their intellects and spark their creativity, and develop a sense of social justice that would translate into action.