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A University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa engineering student and Kapiʻolani Community College STEM program alumna earned a national space aviation fellowship, opening the door to internship, mentoring and networking opportunities. Katlynn Vicuna is one of 51 recipients out of more than 1,000 applicants named to the Brooke Owens Fellowship class of 2022, and is the first recipient ever from Hawaiʻi.

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As part of the program, the junior mechanical engineering major with an aerospace focus will spend the summer working at Lockheed Martin in Littleton, Colorado, one of dozens of leading aerospace employers participating in the program.

“I am hoping to gain exposure to what the engineering world is like,” Vicuna said. “…I think the internship is the best way to see where I will make a difference and be a good fit for whatever company I end up working for in the future.”

The fellows were selected based on their commitment to their communities, demonstrated creative abilities, leadership record, talent and desire to pursue a career in aerospace. The program’s goal is to recognize exceptional undergraduate women and other gender minorities with opportunities to further their careers. Organizers of the fellowship said this year’s class is the most diverse and competitive in the program’s six-year history.

“I am still in shock to be quite honest. I applied a couple of times, and I was never called back. This last time I gave it everything I had, and I got in. I guess if you do the work, you get the reward,” Vicuna said. “I feel so honored to be a part of this organization. We just had a meet and greet with all the other people accepted…It is an amazing feeling to be part of a group of motivated individuals with a common goal.”

Kapiʻolani CC and UH Mānoa experiences

Vicuna enrolled at Kapiʻolani CC after taking an 18-year hiatus from school. She said she had no idea which classes to take or what to sign up for. Vicuna credits Kapiʻolani CC STEM Program employee Li-Anne Delavega with helping her to stay motivated and encouraging her to enroll in the NASA Community College Aerospace Scholars program.

I probably had him write one million recommendation letters and he wrote all one million of them. No questions asked. They all became my family.
— Katlynn Vicuna

“This involved some work, but ultimately, I got to go to NASA for a week for free! This solidified that I could not work in any other career path. She also got me a job at Kapiʻolani CC in the physics and engineering department as a lab assistant,” Vicuna said.

That’s where Vicuna learned from Professor Herve Collin and Assistant Professor Aaron Hanai. “During the pandemic they both made it seem like there was no pandemic,” Vicuna said. “Aaron helped me work on so many cool research projects and my presentation skills. Herve became one of my biggest advocates for furthering my education. I probably had him write one million recommendation letters and he wrote all one million of them. No questions asked. They all became my family.”

At Kapiʻolani CC, Vicuna enrolled in the Kaʻieʻie program, which is a a dual-admission, dual-enrollment program for students who are pursuing a four-year undergraduate degree, but choose to begin their degree at one of UH’s community colleges.

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“Without Kapiʻolani CC I would have never made it into UH Mānoa,” Vicuna said. “There was no way I was going to get into the engineering program without what I learned at Kapiʻolani CC. With a little hard work, they realized that I was serious about my education, and I was able to be part of the Kaʻieʻie program that allowed a smooth transition while being dual enrolled into UH as a full-time engineering student without the stress of applying directly into the engineering program at UH. It really prepared me for university life.”

At UH Mānoa, Vicuna credited Hawaiʻi Institute of Geophysics and Planetology Assistant Researcher Frances Zhu and Hawaiʻi Space Flight Laboratory (HSFL) Avionics Engineer Amber Imai-Hong with creating educational opportunities. Vicuna gained experience creating an aerospace engineering textbook with a corresponding hands-on learning kit called Artemis CubeSat Kit with Zhu, and became an avionics assistant for HSFL and monitored a school-made satellite called Neutron-1 under the guidance of Imai-Hong.

For more on Vicuna’s road to UH, visit the UH Mānoa College of Engineering website.

This work is an example of UH Mānoa’s goals of Enhancing Student Success (PDF) and Excellence in Research: Advancing the Research and Creative Work Enterprise (PDF), two of four goals identified in the 2015–25 Strategic Plan (PDF), updated in December 2020.

—By Marc Arakaki

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