Undergraduate Academic Affairs

June 1, 2022

UW sophomore Jonathan Kwong awarded selective Udall Scholarship

Danielle Marie Holland

University of Washington sophomore Jonathan Kwong was recently named a Udall Scholar! Kwong is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in environmental science and resource management with a minor in oceanic and Pacific Islander studies.

Photo of Jonathan Kwong

Jonathan Kwong , UW sophomore, was recently named a Udall Scholar.Photo by Ian Teodoro

This year, the Udall Foundation awarded 55 scholarships to college sophomores and juniors for leadership, public service and commitment to issues related to American Indian nations or to the environment. More than 380 candidates from across the country applied for this selective scholarship, with award recipients receiving up to $7,000 each. The Udall Scholarship honors the legacies of Morris Udall and Stewart Udall, whose careers held significant impact on American Indian self-governance and stewardship of lands and resources.

“I’m really happy and overjoyed. What the Udall Scholarship means to me is I’m able to continue doing my research, and it’s such an honor. I will be able to continue meeting with professors, continue learning more and doing the work without having to worry about finances,” shared Kwong. They cite the additional benefit of this award granting them time to make friends, connections and develop new mentor relationships.

A dedicated researcher, scholar and storyteller, Kwong is focused on uplifting traditional ecological knowledge within the environmental science fields and cites their upbringing and heritage from Guam as essential to their understanding of land, nature, resources and history. Kwong’s interdisciplinary studies have given them the opportunity and resources to actively create a pathway rooted in community, as they become a scientist who is both equitable and effective.

“My Indigenous perspective is they’re not separate – academia, research, storytelling, education. They’re all connected and it’s only really the socially constructed boundaries that separate them into different subjects and disciplines,” says Kwong.

With an intersectional-justice-focused lens, Kwong is actively working to make environmental science accessible and equitable. Teaching elementary through high school students, they have created anti-racist science curricula, developed podcasts and designed board games to increase engagement, awareness and overall impact.

Kwong is no stranger to making contributions and remains personally dedicated to community-building toward the greater collective. Kwong leads the UW student organization Queer People of Color Alliance and actively participates in community work with organizations including Equity Institute, King County Airport Community Coalition and Root of Our Youth. They see a fundamental connection between all their diverse avenues of interest and research.

“I think research and academia has helped me identify terms. Research has helped me be able to look for biases, look for the details. Storytelling has been able to help me communicate the idea. Education has helped me work with students to bring change,” shared Kwong. They remain steadfast in their dedication to their own education, and to uplifting and sharing awareness within the community.

Kwong has additionally been selected for the 2022 NOAA Ernest F. Hollings Undergraduate Scholarship and has an upcoming internship at Smithsonian Environmental Research Center’s Biogeochemistry Lab. Previous awards and honors for Kwong include a 2021 Doris Duke Conservation Scholar for University of California Santa Cruz and the 2021 University of Washington Alumni Association Homecoming Scholar.

About the Udall Scholarship

The Udall Undergraduate Scholarship is open to college sophomores and juniors for leadership, public service and commitment to issues related to Native American nations or to the environment. Udall Scholars come from all majors and fields of study. Recent Udall Scholars have majored in environmental sciences and policy studies, agriculture, political science, natural resource management and American Indian studies, to name just a few areas.

About the Office of Merit Scholarships, Fellowships and Awards

The Udall Undergraduate Scholarship process is supported by the Office of Merit Scholarships, Fellowships and Awards (OMSFA), a UAA program. OMSFA works with faculty, staff and students to identify and support promising students in developing the skills and personal insights necessary to become strong candidates for this and other prestigious awards.

More about Jonathan, a Q&A

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What brought you to study environmental sciences?

I study environmental science and resource management and I minor in Oceanic and Pacific Islander study. That’s been a really cool and unique combination. My main focus I want to get out of environmental science is traditional ecological knowledge, especially in dismantling the extractive system of Western science. It’s been interesting trying to balance those two out.
Asking, how do I learn science and learn the technologies and the methods while also being critical of it.

There’s this thing called parachute science, when research scientists swoop into a community. They collect the data, they do their thing, they swoop out without giving back to the community, without really contributing. That usually happens a lot in coral reef research, and, as someone who was raised in Guam, my heritage is rooted in, “how do I not be extractive”? Especially [considering] the stories that I’ve been told and the history I’ve learned from the land, [I want to ask]: How do I be a scientist in a way that is both equitable and effective?

How do you see your studies and research play out in the greater community?

During my freshman year, I had just started exploring the word intersectionality and what that meant to me. It was really cool to go into that mindset. I was reading about water systems, and then seeing it in class and thinking, “What else do I want to learn more about?” I gradually found myself free floating all throughout science. I did classes in museum studies, disability justice and law, and gender law. I wanted to see how there could be maximum inclusion, maximum equity. That goes into processes, and there’s so many identities out there beyond race, so everyone can bring something to the table, but how are we getting people to speak up and how are we getting people to uplift their voices?

How do you lift up your voice and others?

I’ve hosted a storytelling event called “Voices in American ethnic studies.” Counter-narratives highlight voices that are ignored, so it’s important to have discussions with the affected people present. There’s so much, “people of color are suffering.” Especially regarding the Pacific Islands, [people say,] “they’re sinking, they’re drowning. In the next 20 years, they’ll be gone.” People still live there. And people still exist. So what are those stories? [I want to uplift] the counter stories, counter narratives that can be told about these cultures, about how these [people] are not just statistics that go away in 20 years, but how [they] will continue to fight and solve a problem that was not their own making.

So anti-racism has been a really big thing that I’ve been trying to get into and especially working with the community. Ever since I created my own [anti-racist science] curricula, I was piloting it in classrooms. I was invited to teach it. And I gradually got to know educators of color. Now we have a racial healing circle with educators of color across Washington state where we’ve talked about issues with access and education. We ask what’s wrong with accessibility and equity and how are people being mistreated? How are people being isolated and attacked? And how are they also not being acknowledged when these things happen?

Can you speak more to how you see yourself in community?

I’m a community organizer for King County International Airport Community Coalition. This work is focused on stopping the expansion of King County International Airport, especially since they originally were trying to expand into places like Beacon Hill and Georgetown, low income and communities of color. This is an obvious sign of gentrification. We look at how we are bringing in neighbors. I’ve also learned so much about air pollution and the history here.

I think just living within Seattle, Washington, it’s great to be able to do the science, go to the parks, go to the rivers and test. But it’s even better to work with the communities. Work with the King County International Airport Community Coalition and work with educators to not only solve issues locally, but to bring awareness through education.

What role does interdisciplinarity play for you?

I’m part of the Interdisciplinary Honors Program. So half of my classes are different disciplines smashed together and they create something really beautiful. I took a disability, gender and law class through Honors and brought that disability perspective, especially highlighting people of color with a disability, into discussions about what’s excluded when we make trails, when we build green infrastructure. When we say “oh, we should just get rid of all the roads and create a bypass” but people with a wheelchair need cars. You know, if we get rid of all elevators because they’re electric and we make stairs because they’re more eco friendly? Who’s going to be claiming that, because it’s definitely not the wheelchair user.

Learning these nuances is incredibly helpful in doing the decolonizing work within myself. Another set of classes that I took were solving issues in museum spaces and decolonizing ethnomusicology archives. What does the colonial history of archives look like? How have they helped and harmed? Discussion repatriation and land back in the context of institutions helped me learn more about how prevalent colonialism is within all fields, including my own. Studying environmental science comes with going to natural reserves, like Friday Harbor Laboratories or Pack Forest or UC Natural Reserve System. But these research places are still stolen. I want to learn more about how to re-indigenize or truly decolonize spaces as I continue my work.

What has been one of your biggest takeaways from the past two years of studies and leadership?

We have to do the equity work within ourselves before we do the work outside. If we never internalize what equity means to us, then our actions fall flat. Community activism has been helpful in putting action to my words. I might identify a lot of issues, but now I’m finally able to act upon them. I’m able to have a community and come together with other people and look into it. Look at educational disparities, look at lack of access to technology, airport expansion — and look at why these are wrong. We can work with councilmembers, talk with legislators and ask who is being left out of the conversation. We can work to not speak for other people but to uplift people’s voices.