Sparking Interest in STEM Careers

Photo caption L to R:  Keolani Noa, outreach and Native Hawaiian coordinator of the STEM Program at KCC; Kala‘i Madrona, KCC STEM student; Stacy Clayton, Executive Strategy Consultant, Strategy & Innovation Division, Kamehameha Schools; Kimberly Kahaleua, KCC STEM student, and Andrew Chang, KCC STEM student.

Kimberly Kahaleua
was recognized as a standout among her peers by judges at the fall 2015 Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS) Conference in Washington, D.C. She won one of the Best Student Presentation Awards, and is the only undergraduate student from the University of Hawaiʻi Community Colleges to do so.

In 2014 Kamehameha Schools partnered with Kapiʻolani CC on Project Olonā. The goal of the project is to spark Native Hawaiian students’ interest in STEM careers through the study of Hawaiian medicinal plants. This program has changed the trajectory of its participants’ lives.

Q&A with 2014 Project Olonā student Kimberly Kahaleua

Please tell us about yourself

I was born and raised in Waipahu, O‘ahu. My mother is Chinese and my father is Native Hawaiian and Portuguese. I didn’t really get in touch with my Hawaiian heritage until I graduated from Pearl City High School in 2011.That summer I joined the Kapiʻolani CC Science Technology Engineering and Math (KCC STEM) Summer Bridge Program. During that summer, I became certain that I wanted to pursue a career within the science field.

I received my AA and AS degrees from Kapiʻolani CC. I am still studying full-time at Kapiʻolani CC and taking transferable courses towards my BS degree at UH Mānoa. I also work for Mrs. Keolani Noa, who is the KCC STEM Native Hawaiian Outreach Coordinator, as a student helper and am part of Project Olonā.

Did you experience challenges along your academic journey?

As a typical college student, I worried about money and balancing my academics with my social life. When I first started college, I knew I wanted to do something within the science field but the path on getting there wasn’t very clear. I spent a long time trying to narrow my interests down. I also lacked the confidence in myself and had to find what I was really good at. A few years ago, I wouldn’t have thought that I could get this far in college and accomplish the things I’ve done.

How did Project Olonā help you on your journey?

Project Olonā provided me the opportunity to do research for the first time. I’ve been exposed to a lot of skill building experiences, ways of thinking, and I’ve made many connections with other people through the partnerships that Project Olonā has provided. I was fortunate to make connections with people from Kamehameha Schools, faculty members from UH Mānoa, and researchers from John A. Burns School of Medicine (JABSOM). I have learned many things from the people that I’ve met from over this course and they’ve helped to encourage and develop me into the type of student that I am today.

I am grateful to have Project Olonā and the opportunity to do research because without it, I probably wouldn’t get this type of experience from my regular classes. It is one thing to learn in a classroom, and another thing to do hands on experience in the field or lab.

How did you feel about being recognized at the SACNAS conference?

When I was awarded at the SACNAS national conference I was extremely shocked! Just before I left my hotel room to attend the award ceremony, I was talking to my mom on the phone and telling her that there was no way that I was going to win because 1) the abstract that I submitted didn’t match the research that I presented (I actually had more on my research poster than I said I did in my abstract), 2) I only had one judge while the other contestants in my category had 3-4 judges, which I thought would increase their chances, and 3) I was competing with students from 4-year colleges.

But despite all these worries, I knew that I worked very hard on my research and deep down I really wanted to win! So when my name was called, I felt so relieved that all my hard work paid off. It felt good to make my mentors, friends, and family proud of me. I was also proud of myself and it gave me a confidence boost that I have the potential to do great things with my research!

What are your dreams for your future?

I would love to work in the field of natural resources and environmental management/ conservation. My dream is to use my knowledge and skills to help the communities here in Hawaiʻi.

What advice do you have for others who have big dreams?

You may face multiple obstacles while trying to achieve your dream, but never give up when it gets tough! Always remember to push through and your hard work will eventually pay off.

For Our University, Our Hawai‘i, Our Future