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Central Washington University

CWU McNair Scholars Awarded National Science Foundation Fellowship Grants

Tuesday, May 25, 2021

Two McNair Scholars from Central Washington University were awarded the prestigious National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship Grant this spring, providing them with three years of graduate research funding and five years of access to career resources like internships and mentorships.

Kahmina Ford, who is graduating next month with a BS in physics, is the first CWU undergraduate to receive the NSF grant in the past 10 years. Graduate student Leni Halaapiapi also will receive federal funding for his work in computer science.

The NSF Graduate Research Fellowship application is highly intensive, requiring two essays to be evaluated by a committee. One focuses on the intended research, the feasibility of a successful outcome, and the broader impact the work would have, were it to be funded. The other requires candidates to speak to their personal strengths and demonstrate why they’re the ideal person to conduct said research. Many apply, but very few receive the grant.

“It is incredibly competitive,” said Pamela Nevar, director of the CWU McNair Scholars Program. “There are thousands of students who apply for it every year all over the country.”

Ford credits much of her success to the support she received through the program.

“I don’t know how I would’ve been able to make it this far, to get into graduate school, without McNair,” Ford said. “The level of support has been absolutely indescribable.”

The McNair Scholars program was established by the federal government in 1989 as a way to support students from communities underrepresented in academia in earning their graduate degrees. CWU’s McNair program is one of 189 such programs currently operating in the U.S.

“Most of the students who come to us are recommended by faculty who see the potential in them, and want them to pursue graduate school,” Nevar said. “They’re often really anxious to start in our program.”

Students join the program during their junior year, after which they attend special classes designed to prepare them for graduate studies and participate in research fellowships within their field. The McNair program also waives application fees for graduate degrees and other academic enterprises, such as conference speaking engagements and internship applications.

“The goal is to get more PhDs who look like the students they teach, and come from similar walks of life,” Nevar said.

As a regional leader in diversity, CWU seeks to support non-traditional students every step of the way as they pursue their goals. The McNair Scholars program is just one of the many ways CWU works to ensure the success of its students. Both Ford and Halaapiapi found the support and encouragement from their professors and peers was instrumental in keeping them on the path toward a PhD.

“Central just has so much to offer,” Halaapiapi said. “I think it’s to the point where it can get overwhelming, really. There are so many opportunities for students to pursue what they want to do that many don’t know where to look — which isn’t a bad thing. If you know what you’re looking for, you’ll find it at CWU.”

Ford agreed, adding that her concerns about being a non-traditional learner disappeared with the help of the friends she made during her time at CWU.

“As a non-traditional student, it’s kind of hard to navigate a four-year undergrad,” said Ford, a single mother who overcame numerous life challenges to gain experience in biophysics. “Everyone around me is in their early 20s, so there’s a big difference in our lifestyles. It can feel a bit isolating and intimidating, especially because I have a son. 

“But despite that, I’ve been able to make a lot of friends of all age groups,” she continued. “They always encouraged me whenever I felt like the odd one out, and reminded me that I worked to be here, and I deserve to be here.”

After graduation, Ford will be attending the University of California at Berkeley to pursue her PhD in biophysics. Her current research involves using computer modeling to simulate neuron growth. Halaapiapi is researching swarm intelligence in insects and its applications in drone technology, and will be pursuing his PhD in computer science at the University of Oregon. 

Both NSF grant recipients have faced their share of hardships in reaching this milestone in their academic careers. Ford and Halaapiapi recognize the value of knowing when to ask for help, and having faith that hard work and dedication really do pay off.

“You have to have faith in yourself, that you’ll make it work, and let yourself take the time you need to get there,” Ford said. “A little bit of work every day is better than doing nothing at all and being paralyzed by your fear. If you do get overwhelmed, reach out and ask for help. Professors are human beings, too, and they understand that sometimes life gets in the way.” 

“You just need to have the determination, and not get discouraged when you fail along the way,” Halaapiapi added. “I’ve failed so many times, but it’s that failure that I keep learning from. If you can stick it out, you’ll do good for yourself. Central has all the resources to help anybody; you just have to seek them out.”

Media contact: Rune Torgersen, Department of Public Affairs, rune.torgersen@cwu.edu.

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