Hulali Kinilau, at far left, graduated with two STEM degrees in May. -Photo: Courtesy

A freshman biology course at Chaminade University ignited Hulali Kinilau’s passion for science, but also took her out of her element. Her classmates didn’t look like her, and they didn’t sound like her, either.

“I didn’t see my people,” she recalled of her early classes in STEM subjects: science, technology, engineering and mathematics. “It made me feel like maybe I was in the wrong field.”

But the next year she had a biology class with Dr. Chrystie Naeole, and another with Dr. Jolene Cogbill the year after that. “They’re Native Hawaiian females in STEM and I was like, ‘Okay, maybe my people are already in grad school or something.’”

Professors Naeole and Cogbill became Kinilau’s mentors as well as her role models, helping her navigate through college in every respect. “If we have problems with home life or school, we can always go to them. If we don’t understand a certain class, they have funding for tutoring,” Kinilau described, adding that her mentors were also good mediators when issues arose with other professors.

Chaminade’s Office of Native Hawaiian Partnerships and its Ho‘oulu Scholarship Program offered in partnership with Kamehameha Schools provide Hawaiian students additional resources and support services. As a Ho‘oulu Scholar, Kinilau received full tuition assistance and had the opportunity to attend biomedical research conferences that changed her outlook on STEM, and on being Hawaiian and female in a science field.

“As a Native Hawaiian serving institution, we know investing in the success of students like Hulali is critical to our long-term success in the future, for all of us,” explained Chaminade scholarships manager Dawn Johnson.

“There’s a darker part of our recent past where we were ashamed of who we are and where we come from and she’s part of that change,” Johnson continued. “She’s part of that continued wave toward re-embracing who we are, where we come from and why we’re here. We’re not so far from our past today and it’s our future, like we have in Hulali, that’s going to ensure that we don’t forget and we continue to perpetuate.”

An internship with cultural enrichment coordinator Kahoali‘i Keahi-Wood helped Kinilau understand how Native Hawaiian practices and protocols can be applied in a western setting, and deepened her understanding of lā‘au lapa‘au. “He made it so it was a combination of culture and science,” she said, describing how he taught students to identify medicinal plants and their uses, and how to make plant-based cleansers, eye washes and topical creams.

Kinilau followed his example in integrating culture and science as she designed educational modules for Chaminade’s “I Am a Scientist” program for grade school students, which focuses on inspiring the next generation of scientists.

Education wasn’t a priority for most of Kinilau’s extended family members but her mother had attended college and expected that Kinilau would, as well. “I didn’t have the same faith that she did, so I was like, ‘Yeah, I’ll go to college but I don’t know how long I’ll stay,’” Kinilau recalled.

But her mother wasn’t the only one who wanted to see Kinilau succeed in college – she was surprised with a partial scholarship to Chaminade during her 2012 graduation from Aiea High School.

Kinilau advises Hawaiians considering higher education to “apply to anything and everything. Don’t put yourself down and say there’s better people for the program. Have faith in yourself and what you can do and what you’re willing to do to get where you want.”

Last month, Kinilau graduated from Chaminade University with two STEM degrees, one BS in cellular biology and a second in environmental studies. This month, she left for the University of North Carolina’s 12-month Postbaccalaureate Research Education Program (PREP) for minority college graduates interested in pursuing doctoral studies in biological and biomedical sciences. She has her eye on Marshall University’s biomedical science program after completing the PREP program.

“Being Native Hawaiian reminds me of what my values are and what my responsibilities are as a person,” she said. “It’s self-realization: knowing who you are, knowing where you’ve been and knowing where you want to go.”

It also makes her want to come back. “All of the scholarships I’ve been on talk about giving back to the community, whether it’s something small like community service or whether it’s big, like donating your time. I think that’s what I need to do.”

Learn more about Chaminade’s Ho‘oulu Scholarship Program at finaid.chaminade.edu/scholarships/hooulu-stem-scholarship.