Two Colorado State University juniors, Francis Commerçon and Kiloaulani Kaawa-Gonzales, were recently named finalists for a Truman Scholarship, a nationally competitive award for undergraduates committed to careers in public service.
The CSU undergraduates are among 199 finalists selected from 136 institutions across the country. The Truman Foundation, a federal memorial to former President Harry S. Truman, reviewed nearly 770 student applications from 315 institutions.
Only 50 to 60 outstanding undergraduates — approximately one from each state — will receive a $30,000 scholarship to a graduate school of their choice, attend a weeklong leadership training session with other winners from across the country, and 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.
The 2017 Class of Truman Scholars will be announced on April 21.
“To have multiple finalists in any year is a sign of success and the great student leaders that we have on campus,” said Mary Swanson, associate director of the Office for Undergraduate Research and Artistry (OURA) in The Institute for Learning and Teaching (TILT), who coordinated the Truman nominating process.
Commerçon, who is pursuing a double major in Fish, Wildlife, and Conservation Biology and Biological Sciences, is an Honors student and a Boettcher Foundation Scholar. He hails from Highlands Ranch, Colorado, and co-founded the CSU Field Ornithologists when he was a freshman.
An avid birder since the age of 10, Commerçon now serves as the citizen science coordinator for the club. He works regularly with Colorado Parks & Wildlife and the Bird Conservancy of the Rockies to organize volunteers for bird monitoring programs, among other duties.
“My role in public service is going to be in academics or nonprofit sectors,” he said. His dream job would include working for BirdLife International, the Wildlife Conservation Society, or World Wildlife Fund, global organizations that focus on conserving the planet’s diversity of plants and animals. “Especially wildlife, and especially birds,” he added.
Commerçon is passionate about foreign cultures; he’s currently studying Chinese and French languages. In fall 2015, he spent four months in southern China, where he lived with a family and studied environmental issues on a rubber plantation. He returned last summer to China, conducting an independent research project on wildlife exploitation and volunteering for an ecological restoration project.
While there, he learned about the lack of wildlife due to hunting in this biodiverse area. Commerçon plans to complete part of his honors thesis work in southern China, and will collect data on the social factors underlying illegal bird and bat catching at a nature reserve.
“I want to understand what will motivate people to use wildlife in a sustainable way, understand the knowledge they have about the wildlife and use that information to help direct an educational outreach program,” he said.
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. He hails from Moloka’i, Hawaii, and is the recipient of scholarships from the Udall Foundation, Nordstrom, Coca-Cola and Ka Hikina O’Ka La.
Kaawa-Gonzales hopes to take part this summer in a Research Experience for Undergraduates in Hawaii or Puerto Rico through the National Science Foundation. Both programs he’s exploring are focused on tropical conservation biology, including invasive species management, a topic he’s been interested in since elementary school. Kaawa-Gonzales is also concerned about endemic and rare plant species conservation, something that he’s seen up-close in Hawaii.
He wants to help improve the cultural connection in environmental jobs in Hawaii. “There are so many insightful native people that work in the field of natural resources,” he said. “But there is very rarely a chance for them to take a management or advisory role because of the lack of a college degree.”
Through his work for the Minorities in Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Related Sciences chapter, he helps prepare the next generation of students to become leaders. Kaawa-Gonzales is also very active in El Centro, an inclusive learning environment on campus. He serves as the lead student facilitator for SOMOS Rams, a freshman leadership retreat at Estes Park for first-generation Latino students.
“We are really creating a connection with and among the students,” he said. “Their parents have no experience with college or how to navigate all the things that come with college. So we as upper level students help them navigate through college with a goal of everyone graduating with a degree.”
CSU sophomores who are interested in applying for next year’s Truman Scholarship competition should contact Mary Swanson for more information.