A group of eight girls, ages 11 – 17, had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to meet with Michelle Obama on Feb. 15, 2022, as part of an event coordinated by the Obama Foundation’s Girls Opportunity Alliance, an initiative designed to empower and educate young women. Allena Villanueva ’22 – who is on a mission to bolster the number of underrepresented people in STEM – was part of the select few.
While being in the presence of a former first lady could leave some tongue-tied, Villanueva harnessed her nerves to advance her goals. “My heart was beating fast and I was shaking,” she recalls. “But I pushed through and kept talking about what I’m passionate about and what it meant to be there not just for women in STEM but for indigenous people in STEM.”
Villanueva has spent years ideating how to build a better world through inclusivity in STEM. Part of her journey included assembling Hawai‘i’s first all-girls robotics team, which has earned three state championships since its inception in 2016.
Christine David, a math teacher and one of her deans, describes Villanueva as a model STEM student. “I always think of how we need strong women in STEM and she epitomizes that. She pushes forward even when it’s hard.”
In her sophomore year, Villanueva won Nalukai Academy’s Purple Prize Innovation fellowship. She shadowed local company, Studio Moea, learning about the business side of its online app, which educates kids about native fish and overfishing.
Currently, Villanueva heads the Laulima Project, which she founded in 2021 to provide equal access to STEM education. Specifically, she offers free hands-on robotics classes to populations that are not exposed to robotics in school.
“I believe that the purpose in my life is to create a greater space for underrepresented people in STEM. I believe this sense of purpose comes from the understanding that I’ve benefited from the space others before me created and wanting to pay that forward.”
In the fall, Villanueva will enter the University of Southern California as a computer science major. There’s one thing she’s certain about: Giving back is tremendously fulfilling.
“I know it sounds cheesy, but it’s true. Whatever business or venture I go into I want to help the world. Grounding yourself in tradition is important.”
She’s excited about where the road will take her and about the people she will meet on her journey. “I’m really passionate about a lot of issues and excited to see where I’m going. Mentors are important. I can’t wait to meet what mentors I’ll have in college.” Known for her humility, yet ambitious personality, Villanueva’s other dean, Jonah Ka‘akua ’97, believes she has a bright future ahead of her. “In the STEM field, we see her as a future leader. There’s something that made her stand out very early on. She definitely learns for learning’s sake, not for grades.”
– By Brandi-Ann Uyemura