Howard Coker ’85 didn’t have a study abroad experience when he was a Wofford student. Thinking back, he describes himself as having a tunnel-visioned approach to college and beginning a career in business.
In the 1990s, however, he received a call at his Ohio office letting him know that he needed to prepare for a work assignment in Singapore. He was working as a factory manager with Sonoco at that time and soon made a trip to the public library to begin researching Singapore.
Coker, who’s now Sonoco’s CEO, would like today’s Wofford students and those in the future to gain experiences outside of the United States sooner. That’s why he recently donated to a fund that will match donations to the college supporting student experiences.
“Until you immerse yourself in another country, you have no idea,” says Coker, who is a member of Wofford’s Board of Trustees. “It opened my eyes that there was a lot more out there.”
Tuning in to the evening news when returning to the United States made him realize the limits of many Americans’ worldviews.
Coker made his donation after Jerry Richardson, a 1959 alumnus, donated $150 million to the college’s endowment in February of 2021. Richardson’s generosity inspired others, including an alumnus wishing to remain anonymous who gave $5 million in support of the vision laid out by the college’s trustees and administration, and to express his appreciation for “all the good Mr. Richardson has done.”
Two million dollars of that gift is being used to match donations being made to support student experiences. Coker’s gift also supports those matching initiatives.
“I was given an opportunity at Wofford that I’ve been able to leverage, and we have an obligation to make Wofford better,” Coker says. “While we have a responsibility to provide a higher value experience for today’s students, there’s an understanding that they will, too.”
While there was much to learn in Singapore, Coker found an approach to business that reminded him of how he was taught to work with people.
“Southeast Asia has a handshake culture that’s very similar to what I experienced growing up in South Carolina,” Coker says.
It changed his family and expanded their circle of friends. His daughter spent time studying in Australia during college and reconnected with friends she made while the family lived there. Many of those friends also traveled to the United States for her wedding. His wife, Rhonda, also travels to visit friends made in Singapore and Australia. Coker enjoys connecting with international students, especially those attending Wofford, who are from countries where Sonoco has operations.
He looks forward to learning about Terriers’ earlier exposure to building relationships abroad.
“I’m happy to support with building that educational process,” Coker says.