Meet the 2011 Next Step Scholars

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Laid-off workers, a grieving mother and a businessman who discovered his true calling are among this year’s winners of the prestigious Next Step Scholarship.

The academic award is presented each year to seven transfer students who have applied to UW Tacoma. Each of these students represents a regional community college. This year’s recipients will receive $4,500 for each of two years of full-time enrollment, for a total of $9,000 per student.

The Next Step endowment was created by the generosity of 30 donors in 1998 to provide significant support to outstanding transfer students for about two years of their education.

The UW Tacoma scholarship committee chooses the scholars from up to three applicants from each associated community college. Applicants are nominated by their community college presidents. Selection criteria include GPA (minimum 3.5), faculty recommendations, strength of coursework, personal statement, and honors, leadership and/or community service.

Heather WestHeather West, Green River Community College

GPA: 3.63
UW Tacoma interest: Computer science and systems, and computer engineering and systems

After an eight-year career in the computer industry, West joined the legions of displaced workers in 2009. West chose to look at her circumstance as an opportunity. She enrolled in the highly competitive Information Technology program at Green River Community College, where she has earned excellent grades. She belongs to the Phi Theta Kappa honor society and the TRIO program. As a volunteer in Great Gators – Ambassadors to Education, she travels to high schools and middle schools to encourage young people to go to college after high school.

West initially planned to obtain an associate degree in information technology at Green River and then return to the work force. But now she’s reaching for a higher goal: to earn bachelor’s degrees in computer science, engineering and cognitive neuroscience, then a doctorate in the field of artificial intelligence. Her dream is to research alternative methods for treating brain disorders such as Alzheimer’s. She lives in Tacoma.

Cody UndlinCody Undlin, Olympic College

GPA: 3.89
UW Tacoma interest: Communication

Cody Undlin knows what it means to make good and bad choices. When she was 16, she admits, too many of her decisions were unhealthy and dangerous. Temporarily succumbing to substance abuse, she landed on the streets, accumulating scars on her body and her soul.

Now in her mid-20s, Undlin is making right choices and has worked to turn her life around. For the past two years, she has attended Olympic College, where she made the Dean’s Scholars List and was inducted into the college’s Phi Theta Kappa honor society. She was a work-study student in the advising and counseling center, and has won high praise from faculty and staff for her work habits, pleasant demeanor and academic achievements. During one quarter, for instance, Undlin had a baby, yet took classes online and earned a 4.0.

Undlin plans to combine her love of writing and media with her desire to help people improve their lives. She volunteers with a research and outreach group called Science and Management of Addictions that works to eliminate substance abuse by youths. Her career goal is to become a market researcher to help such groups provide information that will save lives. She lives in Bremerton.

Jenine EllisorJenine Ellisor, Pierce College Fort Steilacoom

GPA: 3.91
UW Tacoma interest: Social work

Jenine Ellisor turned a devastating personal tragedy into the catalyst to study social work. Ellisor lost her 20-year-old son James to suicide in 2008. In a personal statement, she wrote: “His beautiful life inspired me to find healing by enrolling into Pierce College as the first stepping stone to becoming a youth crisis prevention counselor.” Ellisor entered college for the first time in her life at age 47. Determined to achieve her career goal, Ellisor has excelled in school, earning a place on the 2011 All-USA Academic Team. Faculty supporting Ellisor’s nomination say she has the ability to take what she has learned and apply it to the real world, whether questioning ambiguity or researching information on her own.

Yet Ellisor isn’t waiting till graduation to help people. As president of the local chapter of the Phi Theta Kappa honor society, she led her team in organizing a suicide prevention event for the Pierce campus and community last November. More than 110 people attended to learn how to help prevent suicide, and watched a DVD on suicide awareness produced by Ellisor and her daughter. As Ellisor wrote, “We are living in a generation of broken youth needing our help, our wisdom and hope. It is our responsibility as a caring and educated people to rise up and help heal those in distress.” She lives in Puyallup.

Gurpreet MinhasGurpreet Minhas, Pierce College Puyallup

GPA: 3.975
UW Tacoma interest: Nursing

Gurpreet Minhas will bring a combination of academic excellence and compassion to UW Tacoma. Minhas has been a fixture on the honor roll since she began her higher education, starting at Highline Community College. At Highline, she earned the President's and Vice President's Award each quarter, received the Humanities Student of the Year in 2007, and graduated with honors. She maintained her stellar academic record at Pierce College Puyallup, where she excelled in the nursing program and achieved a 4.0 GPA.

Minhas plans to become a nurse, a career choice that she says will satisfy her own intellectual inclinations while bringing honor and pride to her Indian family.

Her first step was to become a certified nursing assistant, which required a clinical rotation.  In that setting she discovered her passion for seeing that vulnerable patients receive excellent, individualized, compassionate care. She also discovered that she possessed the personal qualities that nursing requires—patience, persistence and empathy. Minhas’s next goal is to become a travel nurse, which will allow her to explore cities around the country. Eventually she aspires to become a nurse practitioner with a specialty in family practice. Faculty supporting Minhas’s nomination praised her intellectual capacity, personal integrity and analytical skills, as well as her ability to communicate effectively with patients, nursing colleagues and other healthcare professionals. She lives in Kent.

Chris LowerChris Lower, South Puget Sound Community College

GPA: 4.0
UW Tacoma interest: Environmental Studies

Returning to school gave Chris Lower the second chance he needed to find his calling in life. Lower said he originally “left the treadmill of middle management” to attend community college, thinking he would earn an associate degree in business to advance his corporate career plans. But after several quarters of business-related coursework left him feeling empty, Lower took other classes that helped him discover his true interests. An environmental science course opened his eyes to issues imperiling the environment and efforts to curtail the damage. A Pacific Northwest literature course gave him the forum to connect Native American predictions with current environmental and social problems.

Though it took Lower time to realize his academic passions, he has always been an outstanding student. At South Puget Sound Community College, he won the 2008 George Warren Collegiate Essay Contest, regularly made the President’s List for academic performance and received his associate of arts degree in 2010 with highest honors.

Lower, who will become the first in his family to earn a college degree, plans to eventually teach at the collegiate level. It’s another strength he discovered in college. Lower does so well in class that instructors ask him to tutor other students. He lives in Lacey.

Malia RamosMalia Ramos, Tacoma Community College

GPA: 3.68
UW Tacoma interest: Communication/urban studies

Malia Ramos’s zest for learning and getting involved has benefitted not only herself, but countless other students. This driven mother of three is a first-generation college student who has found higher education to be a life-changing experience.  At Tacoma Community College, her many activities included serving as president of the college’s Asian-Pacific Islander Club and president of the Center for Academic Support and Achievement (CASA), an organization for low-income and first-generation college students who promote cultural diversity. She wrote for the college’s online student newspaper, The Challenge.

Through campus and community positions, Ramos found ways to make a direct impact on others. One summer, she volunteered at a community support service for Samoan families, and found herself encouraging teens who had no education aspirations beyond high school to aim for college. As a peer advocate at TCC’s counseling and advising center, she wrote, “I became so excited about helping others that I began to help my friends and family as well. Within my first year at TCC, I assisted my best friend in achieving his GED and helped a family member back into school after many years away.”

One of Ramos’s instructors wrote that he believes her efforts increased the retention rate for at-risk students on campus. Ramos hopes to work as a community relations officer for an organization in the Tacoma area that provides resources to the public and advocates for minorities. She lives in Lakewood.

David KleppingerDavid Kleppinger, Highline Community College

GPA: 3.96
UW Tacoma interest: Business administration with an emphasis in accounting

David Kleppinger never dreamed that losing his job would open the door to what he calls the greatest opportunity of his life. That’s how circumstances worked out for Kleppinger, who has excelled in business classes at Highline. After spending 30 years in the working world, he was initially worried about competing with younger students when he returned to school. However, Kleppinger came to realize he had some advantages over other students because he understood the relevance of class lessons and could see the global connection of the many facts and concepts he was learning.

An instructor who nominated Kleppinger for the Next Step Scholarship noted that he has resumed his education with aplomb, citing his eagerness to do extra projects to earn an honors designation. Accounting, communication and environmental science classes particularly resonated with Kleppinger; he sees those issues representing a new and emerging business philosophy. Kleppinger is considering a career as a certified public accountant. He lives in SeaTac.

Written by: 
Debby Abe / July 27, 2011
Media contact: 

John Burkhardt, Associate Director of Communications, or 253-692-4536