Kahmina: Following a lifelong dream of becoming a scientist

Feb 2, 2021

Kahmina was working the graveyard shift as a 911 operator for the Washington State patrol while raising her son as a single mother. Her job was stressful, as she was constantly surrounded by tragedy and death and trauma. She missed reading her son bedtime stories. Her situation was unsustainable. “I was always consumed with worry that I wouldn’t be able to care for my child. I was completely alone,” she says.

She kept thinking about her lifelong dream to become a scientist and knew that she was going to have to take the plunge if she ever wanted things to change. “I decided to be very ambitious and go to community college during the day while also doing graveyard shifts.I knew the transition to school would be hard without hurting my financial stability. I needed the money and also needed credits and a transfer degree to go to a four-year college.”

Doing full time school and a full time night job meant that sometimes Kahmina wouldn’t sleep for a couple of days or she would only take 30 minute naps here and there. She told herself, “No matter how low life gets, it only gets better from here. This is only temporary. I just need to get through this to go where I want to go.“

As she was finishing her program at the community college, the college sent an email talking about WWIN, and Kahmina decided to apply. The day she got her call to interview for a WWIN scholarship she had just been released from the hospital following kidney stone surgery and she was still medicated. She worried that she had messed up the interview, but she did better than she thought. “When I found out I got it I thought, finally one thing went right this year!”

WWIN helped pay for Kahmina’s move to Ellensburg to attend Central Washington University Where she’s enrolled in the four-year biophysics program. Her WWIN scholarship covers tuition and she can use her financial aid to cover her college apartment. Because of that, she’s able to focus on school and raising her son without having to worry about keeping up a job, too.

She sold her car to minimize her bills, but childcare is still a challenge in a small city with limited options. She was on the waitlist for the university childcare for almost two years. “There were times I had to bring him to class and thankfully my profs were cool with it. The professors and faculty are really supportive,” she says.

The COVID-19 pandemic posed another challenge. She got really sick last winter during finals week and tested positive for influenza A. (She still managed to get a 4.0 that quarter.)

Even after she recovered, she’s still feeling the effects of the pandemic. “Trying to do school fully online and having a seven-year-old doing distance learning is tough. His babysitters are out of town. I miss my daily routine of riding my bike to campus, having a cup of coffee, and chatting with people in the lab.” Then she adds, “The pandemic is uniquely disruptive to single moms.”

Kahmina feels fortunate to be conducting research under a professor and earning a stipend through the Ronald E. McNair Postbaccalaureate Achievement Program. All of her work is computational so she can do it from home. She also keeps busy as the president of the biophysics club. And she’s putting together grad school applications to enroll in a neuroscience program.

Ultimately, her goal is to earn her PhD and become a professor—and to diversify academia.  “Diversity is equivalent to excellence, and we need different voices in order to progress. I don’t know of any other Black women who are students in my department. Going into the program has been challenging. There have been a few times during group work that other students haven’t taken me seriously, and I received negative comments.”

She describes a particularly rough day when she came out of a six hour lab feeling discouraged. Then she found a note in the mail from WWIN that said, Remember that not every day is good, but every day has something good in it to help keep you going.

To her, WWIN is more than a scholarship program. “WWIN really cares about me as a person. They do regular check-ins to see how I’m doing. I don’t want to disappoint my sponsor and WWIN. It’s even more motivation. I want this program to continue.”

Besides tuition support and ongoing encouragement, Kahmina was excited to receive funding from WWN last year to travel to Providence, Rhode Island for the national 2019 Physics Congress (PhysCon) Conference, where she toured Harvard University, attended professional development workshops and graduate school fairs, networked with other physics students and faculty from around the country, met a Nobel prize winning physicist, and much more. She describes the trip as “invaluable.” 

She’s grateful to the doors who have opened for her on her journey. “WWIN was that one door that led me to the hallway of all these other doors of opportunities.”

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