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A candid discussion of the challenges faced by Indigenous university students, including Native American and Native Hawaiian students, in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) includes three engineering students from the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa, all of whom also attended multiple UH Community Colleges.

five people standing holding a rocket
Nikki Arakawa, center, and a UH Mānoa team at the North American NASA rocket competition in April 2022.

“I actually failed pre-calculus—two times—and dropped it a third,” said Nikki Arakawa, a UH Mānoa electrical engineering undergraduate, who also attended Kapiʻolani and Windward Community Colleges. “It was not working out for me, and I just didn’t know how to make it work.”

Arakawa said the cohort model, which encouraged students to study and socialize together, made all the difference in her UH pre-engineering program.

Produced by Native Science Report with support from a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant, the 5-minute film Growing Self-Confident STEM Students spotlights the experiences of Native students pursuing pre-engineering, engineering and geoscience degrees at several tribal and Indigenous-serving institutions, including UH Mānoa.

Kayla Valera, third from left, and a team from Kapiʻolani CC at the First Nations Launch National Rocket Competition in April 2018.

“It’s definitely a big transition going from community college to a four-year university, especially focusing on a major like engineering. A lot of topics that we cover aren’t very easy to grasp at first. It’s very conceptual and math heavy,” said Kayla Valera, an electrical engineering major who also attended Kapiʻolani CC.

The film aims to show that along with academic and financial support, these students also need reassurance, and that peers and sympathetic faculty can help pull them through.

people  holding certificates
Hiʻiaka Jardine, third from left, at the Water Environment Federation Technical Exhibition and Conference in October 2019.

“There’s not a lot of Native Hawaiian women in engineering, let alone a single parent,” said civil engineering student Hiʻiaka Jardine, who was interviewed at Windward CC. “So, having a lot of support from the faculty and staff, as well as my classmates, was really instrumental in me getting my degree.”

All students featured in the film were part of initiatives, funded by the NSF’s Tribal Colleges and Universities Program, to support the creation of new geoscience courses and engineering degree programs within tribal colleges and UH.

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