Kūpaʻa Thomas is one of three students here in Hawaiʻi who have been awarded the prestigious 2015 Gates Millenium Scholarship. They are among the one thousand students across the United States who have also been accepted from over fifty thousand applicants who entered.
“We’ve been running a bunch of errands in Hilo. I live all the way up in Volcano and I had really wanted to get home,” says Kūpaʻa Thomas, a student of the 2015 graduating lass at Kamehameha Schools, Hawaiʻi Campus as he reminisces on the day that he received the Gates Millenium Scholarship.
“It was a Saturday and we didn’t have to check the mail, but I said that we should go and check the mail. He said no Dad, let’s just go home,” adds his father, Terry Thomas. “I said Kūpaʻa, let’s check the mail!”
A decision that turned Kūpaʻa’s day around in an instant. “And much to my surprise there was a huge package in there from the Gates Millenium Scholarship Foundation! And it was that I had gotten the scholarship!”
The Gates Millennium Scholarship is a part of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which is the world’d largest private that aims to globally enhance healthcare, reduce extreme poverty, and to expand educational opportunities in the United States and around the world.
“I couldn’t do anything for a few minutes, except to repeat a three-word phrase only- the first of which- only the first word is appropriate for this interview and that is “holy!”,” says Kūpaʻa.
“That feeling you get, it’s like you find a million dollars! Like your ears start ringing, your hair stands on end, your skins tingling and you’re just like ahhhhh, you know, it’s awesome!” says Terry in agreement.
This award is just one example of how Kūpaʻa has lived up to his name.
“His full name is Kūpaʻaikekaiao,” says Terry with pride in his eyes. “Kūpaʻa means solid and upright, and well-balanced on an even keel, loyal, steadfast and i ke kaiao is in the early morning light, when he was born.”
Since then, Kūpaʻa has had to kūlia to overcome many challenges, including Aspergers. This form of autism initially hindered his development compared to his peers.
“I think one thing about Kamehameha Schools, both the student body and the faculty here have really embraced Kūpaʻa and it’s been a great experience for him. He’s excelled, and I’m sure that it’s on a big part of feeling just comfortable.”
An act that came naturally, according to the counselor of Kūpaʻa’s 2015 graduating class at Kamehameha Schools, Hawaiʻi Campus, Malcolm Helm. “I think that one special thing that Kūpaʻa has is he’s likable yeah, you instantly take a liking to him and you can see that with his peers and with his friends especially. They treat him with respect, they include him in everything, it’s really neat to see his classmates take care of him.”
“Over the years we’ve seen him grow, you know, especially in the social rhelm and how he interacts with people as a whole,” Mr. Helm continues.
“For what he lacks that way, he makes up for in areas of math and science,” says Terry.
His Chemistry teacher, Joel Truesdell, couldn’t agree more. “He stacks up with even the best students that I’ve had in college. The uniquness of him though, was that in college I taught organic chemistry, here, he taught himself organic chemistry.”
“I like chemistry because chemistry is the study of matter and matter is basically everything,” Kūpaʻa explains.
“He was in my AP chemistry class, and loved chemistry and we would talk about something and then he would go and pursue it,” says Mr. Truesdell. “I’d be sitting here at lunch and he’d come in and say “Mr. Truesdell I have a question.” Now the questions got to be very high level over the course of the past two years. He is one of the top two students that I’ve had in twenty-eight years at this school.”
This made Mr. Truesdell’s job easier not only as Kūpaʻa’s teacher, but as the person who recommended Kūpaʻa for the Gates Millennium Scholarship.
“He’s going to be a great scientist. But with the leadership opporutities that are going to be coming from the Gates Millenium, that scholarship will be the difference between him being a great scientist and being a leader in science,” says Mr. Truesdell without any hessitation.
Kūpaʻa has also received scholarships from the Pauahi Foundation as well as a Chancelor’s scholarship from his college of choice, The University of Colorado at Boulder. He plans to hoʻomau on his journey through chemistry by double majoring in Chemistry and Bio Chemistry in the fall of 2015.
“He’s a perfector,” says Mr. Helm. “So you know, he’s going to take that academics to a certain level.”
With all of his great achievements and aspirations, Kūpaʻa’s loina Hawaiʻi keeps him grounded and humble as he reflects on the strong foundation- his immediate ʻohana, and his extended ʻohana at Kamehameha Schools, Hawaiʻi Campus- that has brought him to where he is today.