Two Claremont Colleges students recognized for big ideas

Pitzer College senior Michelle Muturi (left) and Pomona College senior Elisa Velasco. Courier photos/Andrew Alonzo

by Andrew Alonzo |

Two Claremont Colleges seniors recently received perhaps the biggest prizes of their undergraduate careers: the 2023 Napier Initiative Award.

This year’s recipients are Pitzer College’s Michelle Muturi, a senior majoring in biochemistry, and Elisa Velasco, a Pomona College Chicana/o-Latina/o Studies major.

The annual awards — named after the late Davie and Joy Napier, longtime Pilgrim Place residents — are given by Pilgrim Place to two graduating 5C College seniors “who demonstrate outstanding leadership in fostering justice for all people, caring for our fragile earth home, and nurturing peace and reconciliation,” according to the initiative’s website. The awards come with $20,000 stipends.

Eleven applicants threw their hats into the ring for this year’s prize. The nine runners-up received $500 stipends.


Michelle Muturi

Muturi, 23, is from the Kenyan capitol of Nairobi, and said receiving a Napier Award was a big honor. Her project, “eco-bricks,” will help three schools in her hometown create furnishings from unrecyclable plastics.

She and volunteers will teach students over the summer how to fill two-liter, plastic bottles with sand and unrecyclable plastics that will then be used as bases and support beams for benches, plant biomes, walkways, and more. Once the biomes are up, students will also learn how to plant and tend a garden.

The project’s aim is to not only make the schools more inviting — and reminiscent of her childhood memories of playing outside — but give students a way to combat pollution in a creative way.

“It helps the environment because you’re recycling a lot of the bottles,” Muturi said. “It’s [also] teaching students environmental friendliness, which is something they’ve never had to learn from a young age.”

The idea has been on her mind since she was young. Muturi’s father, an environmentalist, geographer, and farmer, taught his daughter the importance of caring for the earth and picking up trash.

Muturi applied for the award knowing its potential, and it seems Napier voters saw it that way as well.

“Everyone’s project is fantastic, but it’s like I’m bringing up this idea of putting plastic bottles with sand together,” she said. “I don’t know how seriously they’ll take me, but they took me pretty seriously considering the fact we’re doing a beautification project.”

Muturi will use the $20,000 prize to cover the cost of materials and plants. She believes with three schools involved the project’s social impact could widen as more people see it.

“Kenya is so beautiful, but a lot of it is covered in trash. That environmental mindfulness is lacking,” she said. “I’m hoping it makes a difference.”

A partnering agency in Kenya, the Rotary Club of Ongata Rongai East, will continue the project after it is launched, Muturi said.


Elisa Velasco

Elisa Velasco, 21, is from Norman, Oklahoma.

Velasco’s project, Sin Límites (Without Limits), is an educational summer program for incoming freshman and sophomore Latinx high schoolers in central Oklahoma. It is set to begin June 9.

The program will help students build cultural pride, knowledge, and values, engage with their community, and learn how to apply and succeed in college. Velasco’s students will also meet prominent Latinx figures with hopes of “showing these students that you can be Latino, you can come from immigrant parents, and be successful,” she said.

Velasco said winning a Napier Award is surreal. The initial idea grew out of college confidence.

One of her first college courses was “Chicanx/Latinx in Los Angeles.”

“That was the first time that I had ever been in an academic space with students that look like me, have similar experiences as me, and the curriculum, I could relate to,” she said.

“I’m from Oklahoma, so specifically students of color — Latino students — they do face racism in school and I’m doing my thesis project on that right now. There’s basically no representation of people from Latin America in the curriculum at all, so students don’t have an opportunity to learn about their history.”

She hopes to empower students in her hometown and recreate what she felt during that early class at Pomona College.

“For me, being in that first college class, afterwards I became so much more secure in my identity,” she said. “After that class, I really saw value in centering students.”

She’ll be partnering with Dream Action Oklahoma to put on the program, which is set to run Monday through Wednesday at various locations through August 13. Velasco will use her stipend to pay volunteers and guest speakers, and for books, food, and field trips. Four $1,000 scholarships have also been set aside for students.

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