Meet the 2021 Presidential Scholars

Each summer Western Today honors the seven Presidential Scholars chosen to represent their colleges at spring commencement. Each day in Western Today we will add one of the scholars to this story, so check back to see them all!

Woodring College of Education: Azucena Zavala Montalvo

Azucena Zavala Montalvo of Mount Vernon graduated in March with a Bachelor of Arts in Education majoring in early childhood education, minoring in social justice, and with a Washington State Early Childhood Teacher Certification.

She is also the first in her family to graduate from a university. Zavala immigrated to the U.S. with her family at age 16 and was a bilingual preschool teacher for several years before enrolling at Woodring College of Education. She earned admiration from Woodring faculty for her excellence in the classroom and her dedication to meeting the needs of all her students. At Western, she completed a preschool internship during the pandemic, researched how to support children and families through remote learning, and presented the work at the first Washington Association for the Education of Young Children conference in Spanish. During her student teaching experience, she helped adapt the curriculum to better meet the holistic needs of children and families from diverse backgrounds with an emphasis on improving the experiences of immigrant families in public schools. Zavala faced challenges with standardized testing, but she was steadfast in her commitments to complete her degree. She did pass the testing requirements, while it postponed her graduation by a year, and she testified to the State Legislature about how the test contradicted the state’s own goal to diversify the teaching workforce and include more bilingual educators.

Soon after graduation, Zavala received two employment offers and now teaches in a bilingual classroom in the Mount Vernon School District, achieving her childhood dream of becoming a teacher. Zavala plans a career as a bilingual teacher and is committed to advocating for bilingual education. To the best of her ability, she wants to mitigate the barriers that all students face and help them reach their full learning potential. “I want to provide students with the support I needed when I was going through school,” she says. Zavala wants to share with students her love of learning and inspire them to be critical thinkers who embrace diversity. A graduate of Mount Vernon High school and Skagit Valley College, Zavala is the proud daughter of two hard-working immigrants, Estanislado Zavala and Irene Montalvo Nuñez.

College of Science and Engineering: Melody Gao

Melody Gao of Vancouver graduated magna cum laude in June with a Bachelor of Science degree in biochemistry, with university honors and as the Outstanding Graduate in Chemistry. Gao also minored in psychology and honors interdisciplinary studies.

Faculty know Gao as an exceptional research student who became the lead student researcher in Assistant Chemistry Professor Jeanine Amacher’s lab, studying protein-peptide interactions. Gao is the lead or co-author on several published research manuscripts and is known for her leadership in the lab, where she relished time spent chatting with fellow student researchers about the future opportunities for both their research and their careers. Gao is a recipient of the prestigious Goldwater Scholarship and will spend this summer at University of California, Los Angeles, on an Amgen REU experience. Outside the lab, Gao was co-president of the Chemistry Club and the Pre-Health Club. She also volunteers each week at Brigadoon Service Dogs.

After graduation, Gao plans to take a year off to apply to medical school. She plans to be a pediatrician and looks forward to working closely with patients, but hopes to continue to do research, too. A graduate of Union High School in Camas, she’s the daughter of Jeff Gao and Xiu Luo.

Huxley College of the Environment: Kathryn Anderson

Kathryn Anderson of Carmel Valley, California, graduated magna cum laude in March with a Bachelor of Science degree majoring in environmental science and minoring in biology.

At Western, Anderson honed her expertise in food education and restoration ecology while developing her plans to become a teacher. She was an environmental educator with Common Threads Farm at the Sterling Meadows community and with MEarth, an environmental education non-profit organization in Carmel, where she got her first lessons in environmental education in the sixth grade. During the pandemic, Anderson impressed faculty with her remote Field Camp research studying escape behaviors of lizards. She also worked as a teaching assistant in environmental statistics and biology classes, and as a tutor to students at Squalicum High School, an experience that cemented her plans to teach at the high school level.

After a summer working with kids at MEarth, Anderson plans to move to Seattle to work in environmental education before returning to Western for a Masters in Teaching to become a high school science teacher. The daughter of Shawn Anderson, she’s a graduate of Carmel High School.

College of Humanities and Social Sciences – Humanities Division: Brahm VanWoerden

Brahm VanWoerden of Bellingham graduated magna cum laude and with university honors in June with a bachelor's degree in Spanish and linguistics.

VanWoerden worked closely with Assistant Professor Jordan Sandoval and Senior Instructor Kirsten Drickey on the Curriculum Development Team researching pronunciation instruction. He presented his work on campus, at the Northwest Linguistics Conference at the University of Washington and at the Cornell Undergraduate Linguistics Conference, among others. VanWoerden was also a well-regarded teaching assistant in linguistics, where he was known for his ability to convey key concepts in accessible ways without losing complexity.

He was a student facilitator in Western’s Employee Language Program, working with faculty and staff to develop their Spanish language skills. The experience inspired VanWoerden to pursue teaching as a career and he plans to return to Western after graduation to complete a Masters in Teaching degree and become a high school Spanish teacher. Out of the classroom, VanWoerden was also president of Western’s men’s rugby club team, finding ways to keep the team together even when they couldn’t always practice together during the pandemic. A graduate of Bellingham High School, VanWoerden is the son of Sarah and Trevor VanWoerden. 

College of Humanities and Social Sciences – Social Sciences Division: Summer Pascual

Summer Pascual of San Jose, California, graduated cum laude in June with a bachelor's degree in psychology. Pascual immersed herself in research during her time at Western and was devoted to projects that build on our understanding of equity and liberation.

Much of her work focused on body neutrality, or what our bodies can do rather than what they look like. Working with Assistant Professor Anna Ciao, Pascual was a leader in the EVERYbody project, training peers to deliver a curriculum of body acceptance to college students. She also worked with a Toronto non-profit organization to develop a manual for a body image acceptance program for LGBTQIA+ middle schoolers, and she is part of another body image program tailored to students at Shuksan Middle School in Bellingham. She also researched race and prejudice with Assistant Professor Alex Czopp.

Pascual was outspoken in class, often sharing a nuanced perspective on racial equity. These conversations had lasting impact on faculty members, who say they changed the ways they approach equity in their own work. Meanwhile, Pascual took pleasure in learning from classmates with different perspectives, and loved introducing people from different backgrounds to each other. Over the next year, Pascual will continue her research work with Ciao and Czopp and plans to apply to a clinical doctorate program in psychology with an emphasis on marginalized identities.

She hopes for a career that combines teaching, research and working with clients in a psychology practice of her own. A graduate of Branham High School in San Jose, she’s the daughter of Carmina and Rhoniel Pascual. 

College of Fine and Performing Arts: Luke Arnold

Luke Arnold of Silverdale graduated in June with two bachelor’s degrees in Piano and Psychology, with magna cum laude honors for both. During his time at Western, Arnold found that his deep interest in psychology was intertwined with his passion for performing and teaching piano.

At Western, he studied piano primarily with Professor Milica Jelača Jovanović, and he also studied collaborative piano with Professor Jeffrey Gilliam. A strong, nurturing relationship with a piano teacher can provide a safe place for people to better understand themselves, grow in their creativity, and process life events, Arnold says, and he wants to be such a teacher for his own students, particularly young queer students. Known as a thoughtful, imaginative and powerful pianist, Arnold received the Arthur Hicks Piano Scholarship, Ford Hill Piano Scholarship, William Sanford Scholarship, the Don C. Walter Memorial Scholarship and the 2019 Special Robert Scandrett Prize for Piano in the Virginia Glover Music Competition. He’s also a Pride Foundation Scholar. Off-campus, Arnold is the music director at St. James Presbyterian Church in Bellingham.

In psychology, Arnold served as a research assistant in two labs, studying cross-cultural research with Professor Jeff King and meditation practice with Professor Barbara Lehman. After graduation, Arnold plans to remain in Bellingham for the coming year to continue teaching and to audition for graduate school. He hopes for a career that combines piano performance and teaching at the university level. The son of Ron and Monique Arnold, he’s a graduate of Central Kitsap High School. 

College of Business and Economics: Emmelyn Affeldt

Emmelyn Affeldt of Olympia graduated magna cum laude in June with a Bachelor of Arts degree with a double concentration in international business and operations management. At Western, Affeldt worked to take advantage of as many opportunities as possible. She had the opportunity to study abroad in Germany and later interned with an international development consultant to establish a skills bank for African health care supply chain consultants to support the professional network there.

On campus, Affeldt led academic teams in the Boeing Case Competition and impressed faculty members with her research work on private sponsorship of Canadian refugees, which she presented at the Bridgewater State Undergraduate Research Conference. Affeldt was also a leader in Alpha Kappa Psi, working with her peers on professional development activities such as networking, resume building, and interviewing. Next, she’ll work at Erin Baker’s Wholesome Baked Goods in production planning and materials procurement – and she’s looking forward to spending more time in Bellingham. A graduate of Black Hills High School, she’s the daughter of Christian and Darby Affeldt.

College of Science and Engineering Presidential Scholar Melody Gao wears her medal outdoors on Western's campus.
Kathryn Anderson wears her cap, gown and stole as she holds her diploma on the lawn in front of Old Main as the cherry tree blooms overhead.
Brahm VanWoerden poses with his medal for being a Presidential Scholar
Summer Pascual poses in her graduation cap
CFPA Presidential Scholar Luke Arnold
CBE Presidential Scholar Emmelyn Affeldt