“I was adamant that I wasn’t going to stay in Hawaii,” Yamada said, as she talked about how she applied to around 16 colleges. “It’s a pretty common narrative for students that went to high school in Hawaii.”
After getting acceptance letters from different colleges, Yamada saw the high tuition costs of colleges outside of Hawaii. Then, UH Manoa awarded her with the Regent Scholarship. The scholarship, which is only for Hawaii high school graduates, is a full-ride scholarship for four years along with a $2,000 stipend each semester and a one-time travel grant of $2,000. This made her choose UH Manoa.
The first-generation college student said it was her mentality going into college that set her up for success.
“If I’m here, then I’m gonna make sure to kind of maximize my time here because I was so set on not going to school in Hawaii,” the 21-year-old said. “So I was like, ‘OK, I’m gonna make sure I make it worthwhile if I’m here.’ And just kind of really try to do everything to the best of my ability.”
During her time in college, Yamada, an electrical engineering major, was selected during her freshmen year for the nationally competitive Nakatani RIES program, where students spend the summer in Japan conducting nanomaterials research at a high-tech lab at the University of Tokyo.
“I was pretty surprised when I made it in and I didn’t appreciate that until I met the other students that were also accepted to it,” Yamada said, adding that the other students were from prestigious colleges. “When I was meeting the other students I was like, ‘Do I belong here? Are they sure they made the right decision?’”
She says the three-month program was a defining experience for her future because it opened her up to see research as a viable career option.
“For me, I think I actually just enjoy doing the work, which is great for me, but maybe not as common for other people to feel that way,” said Yamada. “That was kind of a pivotal moment.”
But it wasn’t always easy for her. During her second semester, she started feeling overwhelmed by a course load that consisted of mainly science and math subjects. She felt her professors were covering material that other local private and “better” public high school graduates already knew.
“I really kind of got irritated by that,” she said. “I felt like I was working a lot harder to get to the same spot as other people. … It wasn’t quite a level playing field, in a sense.”
During all eight semesters, Yamada was a part of the Liquid-Metal Electronics Team, a research team that experiments with re-configurable metal. She said the two professors who ran the research team, Dr. Aaron Ohta and Dr. Wayne Shiroma, were like mentors.
Yamada, an honor student, was also part of the Institute of Electronics and Electrical Engineers, a student-led club that promotes networking and technical workshops for electrical engineering students. She served as the chairwoman during her senior academic year.
She said getting involved with the research team and student club helped her take ownership of her education.
“I felt more invested and tied to my department and my college,” Yamada said. “Obviously it’s not a perfect university … But there’s kind of a special charm to UH after you spend some time here.”
She was recently awarded the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program, which would fund her first three years in graduate school.
“It’s a pretty satisfying thing to get,” Yamada said. “It’s like, ‘OK, I definitely feel validated as someone that wants to have a career in science.’ This means a lot to me because it’s like the United States pretty much saying, ‘We think you’re a student who has potential and we’ll give you money to do research.’”
After getting her diploma Saturday, Yamada’s plan is to continue electrical engineering research in graduate school at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.