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Kūpa‘a Thomas is the class of 2015 salutatorian and one of three Hawai‘i students to be named a Gates Millennium Scholar this year.

KS Hawai‘i’s Kūpa‘a Thomas strives against challenges to win prestigious scholarship

Jun. 5, 2015

KS Hawai‘i class of 2015 alum Kūpa‘aikekaiao Vincent Thomas is a 2015 Gates Millennium Scholar (GMS).  The prestigious scholarship not only covers the cost of college but also helps pay for graduate school, up to and including a doctorate.

Thomas’ story is one of perseverance. He overcame Asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism that creates challenges in social interaction and nonverbal communication, to not only complete his education, but to thrive, being named salutatorian for his class and becoming a role model for his peers in science.

His language and vocabulary development was severely delayed until age four. He had a one-on-one skills trainer from preschool through sixth grade to help him with social prompts and communications skills.

When he was accepted in the seventh grade to KS Hawai‘i, he began to move on without that assistance.

Thomas’ father Terry credits the environment at KS Hawai‘i, for helping him move forward and thrive, providing support and acceptance in an environment that would have otherwise been a challenge. That, in turn, has helped his son be comfortable and show the likeable, energetic personality he has. 

In addition to being an outstanding student, his son has participated in paddling, cross country and the Hawai‘i State Engineering and Science Fair.

“He’s got some communication and social deficits. But for what he lacks that way, he makes up for in areas of math and science,” shares Terry Thomas.

His passion for chemistry is evident in everything from his Halloween costume to using chemistry letters for PR in a sign to ask a classmate to prom this year, which he says was one of the highlights of his year. After receiving the good news about the scholarship, one of the first calls he made was to his chemistry teacher Joel Truesdell to thank him for the nomination and recommendation and to share the excitement.

For Truesdell, Thomas has been one of the top two students he’s had in his 28 years at Kamehameha.

His pursuit of knowledge and challenging himself led to regular lunchtime questions around chemistry as Thomas seemingly aimed to teach himself organic chemistry, a feat that Truesdell jokes has only been accomplished by one other person he knows—Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting, who was fictional. Kūpa‘a Thomas, however, is very real.

“He would take an idea or a concept and see what he could go and find out,” said Truesdell.

“I wish we could have videotaped him so I could show my classes every year – that this is really where you as youth and as students as Hawaiians really want to be.”

His questions became higher-level over time, reaching what Truesdell would describe as a master’s level. He consistently raised the bar in the level of excellence with his peers in AP chemistry.

“I like chemistry because chemistry is the study of matter, and matter is basically everything,” shares Thomas.

“AP chemistry, definitely, was my favorite class in high school. I learned a lot from it. I thought [Mr. Truesdell’s] lectures were fun and entertaining and I learned a lot about the natural world.”

And with the support from the GMS program, Thomas will be equipped with resources that will not only let him become a great scientist, but a great leader in science as well.  

Thomas will continue his educational journey this fall at the University of Colorado at Boulder, where he will pursue a double major in chemistry and biochemistry. He has been fortunate to earn a number of additional scholarships, including a Pauahi Scholars Liko Lehua Award and a CU Boulder Chancellor’s Award.

With that support, Terry Thomas hopes that his son will be able to just relax and enjoy life. “I know he’s going to be taken care of. He’s going to do incredible things in this world. He’s gonna be fine.”

After having this experience, Thomas’ parting advice for younger students is simple. “Apply for any scholarships you might qualify for.”

The 2015 graduate is the third KSH student to earn the scholarship. The others were Bram Paikuli KSH ‘14 and Shariyah Campbell, KSH ‘10.

Established in 1999 with the goal of developing Leaders for America’s Future™, the GMS program is funded by a $1.6 billion grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The GMS program removes the financial barriers to education for high-performing, low-income students.

The scholarship covers tuition and housing expenses through a scholar’s doctoral degree. Over 50,000 students apply for the scholarship each year, which is awarded to only a 1,000. Of those 1,000, only three students in Hawai‘i were awardees this year.

GMS also provides leadership opportunities to all of its scholars, bringing them together at a conference in September and connecting them with a network of their peers.

Applications and nominations for the Gates Millennium Scholars 2016 program will open on August 1, 2015. Visit for details.  

Read Kūpa‘a’s profile in West Hawai‘i Today.

Read the transcript of Kūpa‘a’s story on ‘Ōiwi TV.

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