They thought they were meeting with a Colorado State University alumnus who was interested in providing scholarships to undergraduates. Instead, Francis Commerçon and Kiloaulani Kaawa-Gonzales learned Monday that they were recipients of a Truman Scholarship, a highly competitive federal award granted to college juniors for demonstrated leadership potential and a commitment to public service.
CSU President Tony Frank and Provost and Executive Vice President Rick Miranda relayed the news and congratulations to the undergraduates in a conference room in the Wagar building.
Sixty-two undergraduates this year received a $30,000 scholarship to a graduate school of their choice from The Truman Foundation, a federal memorial to former President Harry S. Truman. As part of the program, Commerçon and Kaawa-Gonzales will attend a weeklong leadership training session this summer with other winners from across the country, and will have the opportunity to complete an internship in Washington, D.C.
Last year, CSU’s Elizabeth Hale won a Truman Scholarship, and Sarah Bibbey and Emily Robitschek were finalists.
Commerçon is pursuing a double major in Fish, Wildlife, and Conservation Biology and Biological Sciences. He is an Honors student and a Boettcher Foundation Scholar. Kaawa-Gonzales is president of the Minorities in Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Related Sciences chapter at CSU and is also a resident assistant for the Natural Resources and Sustainability Learning Community.
Stuart Landers, an instructor with CSU’s INTO program, met Commerçon through the CSU Field Ornithologists. Landers said he’s expanded his knowledge about conservation biology, thanks to Commerçon’s leadership; the talented junior is the club’s co-founder.
“He’s extremely talented in many fields,” Landers said. “He’s a really good leader, and he’s skilled at figuring out what the consensus is, very good at making suggestions and listening to people. He’s not forceful or overly opinionated about things.”
Commerçon, who hopes to pursue a graduate degree at Cornell University, said he was completely surprised to learn he’d received the scholarship.
“Honestly, I didn’t think I’d won the scholarship because the interview wasn’t perfect,” he said. “This is probably one of the biggest surprises I’ve had. It’s hard to express it in words.”
Ethan Billingsley, advisor for the Minorities in Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Related Sciences chapter and director of undergraduate programs in the Warner College of Natural Resources, said Kaawa-Gonzales is a natural leader.
“Kilo is a very happy and outgoing guy,” he said. “Once you get to know him, you discover that he is as motivated and passionate about natural resources as he is personable. His work ethic, positive attitude and inquisitiveness will help him in graduate school and his conservation goals in Hawaii.”
Kaawa-Gonzales, who aims to pursue graduate studies at the University of Hawaii at Hilo, said receiving the scholarship was affirmation that all the hard work he’d done over the years had paid off.
“It’s definitely a process that took years to get to this place,” he said. “I am really grateful. Everyone’s contributions make a difference, people who believe in you and spread your name around, it’s really a blessing.”
The undergraduate also spoke with passion about his future public service goals.
“I want to be an advocate for people who have no seat at the table,” he said. “A lot of Native people are really knowledgeable, have lived in Hawaii their entire lives and work for natural resources agencies, but are never able to obtain that managerial or supervisory role due to the lack of a degree. I want to bridge that gap and collaborate between these two different sides of natural resources, to make that a ‘thing,’ that you can be a Native person and also get a degree.”