KAILUA-KONA — On April 20, Taggart Nakamoto, a Konawaena High School senior at the time, was writing an essay in his advanced-placement English class when he got the notification.
Meanwhile, Hope Kudo, a senior at Kealakehe High School at the time, was sitting by herself in Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport on her way home from a college tour to a robotics championship, waiting for her food, when she got her email.
The email was an announcement the two students, each the top of their class at their respective schools, would be among 300 students to receive the prestigious Gates Scholarship, a full scholarship that recognizes “exceptional, Pell-eligible, minority high school seniors,” according to the scholarship website.
“I kind of just walked out of the room,” Nakamoto said in an interview Friday, “like ‘Wow. That’s very surprising.’ It was awesome.”
“I was just really surprised,” said Kudo. “I had no idea going into it that I would get selected.”
A third Hawaii student, Charles Tran from Kaiser High School on Oahu, is also among the scholars.
Recipients of the Gates Scholarship, now in its first year, are awarded the full cost of attending school minus any other financial aid and the expected family contribution determined by the student’s Free Application for Federal Student Aid.
The Gates Scholarship also comes with a full network of resources aimed at helping scholars succeed as they pursue their higher education. The two students recently attended the Gates Scholarship Summer Institute in Dallas, which featured various panels, guest speakers and team-building exercises along with the opportunity to meet their fellow scholars.
Kudo said the conference was an empowering experience.
“Just because there’s all these really amazing minorities, especially women, who have succeeded and who have come from tougher circumstances than I have,” she said. “Plus, there’s people investing in me, so I feel like there’s no room to fail.”
Next month, the scholars will head off to their respective universities: Nakamoto to Brigham Young University where he will major in chemical engineering and Kudo to Harvard University for a double major in government and environmental public policy with a possible minor in physics, computer science or philosophy.
“I honestly do like chemistry and the processes that go into making things that better the world … (and) our lives and the lives of everyone,” Nakamoto said. “I like to think that I’ll be able to make something that’ll help people, maybe not in a way that they even notice but reducing dangers or making things easier for people all over the world is pretty cool.”
Kudo’s aspirations, meanwhile, include postgraduate studies, the Peace Corps and foreign service followed by the United Nations or State Department.
“I’ve always liked interacting with people and problem solving in creative ways,” she said. “So when you’re (a Foreign Service Officer) in another country, you don’t really have a choice but to interact with people because you’re surrounded by people that you’ve never met before and there’s always a crisis that comes up, and I enjoy being under pressure and just having that intense work session just to figure it out and help those around me.”
The students also said they hope students coming after them also take advantage of opportunities that programs like the Gates Scholarship can provide for those willing to go for them.
“Both of our schools aren’t exactly the most wealthy. We have lots of socioeconomically disadvantaged students,” Kudo said. “And it’s important for them and others to realize that there are opportunities, just because a lot of them do feel like they aren’t able to achieve as much as they could because of financial barriers.”
Superintendent Christina Kishimoto congratulated the students, their families, and the teachers and administrators who supported them along the way.
“We wish each of them the best as they pursue their ambitious college and career goals,” she said.
Other educators said Nakamoto and Kudo are tremendous students deserving of the recognition.
“I’m just completely stoked for him,” said Konawaena High School principal Shawn Suzuki said of Nakamoto. “He’s going to put it to amazing use. The future is very bright for Taggart.”
Justin Brown, career and technical education and robotics coordinator at Kealakehe High School, said Kudo is “someone who finds opportunities past the obvious places.”
“She’s got a great plan and a great head on her shoulders,” he said. “She’s obviously one of those kids that’s going to be successful.”