Commencement 2022: Senior kinesiology student juggles passions with military service

KINGSTON, R.I. – May 11, 2022 – Nakena Kilgore is always on the go. Between her studies as a senior in kinesiology, serving as a cadet in the Rhode Island National Guard, working as a resident assistant and being a Talent Development Scholar, she has a jam-packed schedule. 

But every other Wednesday, there is one place you’ll find her: the recreational fields on Flagg Road. That’s where she participates in URI ROTC training as she works towards completing her military science minor. 

Kilgore, originally from Providence, enlisted in the Rhode Island National Guard in 2019. She spent that summer at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, completing her physical training. When she came home and returned to school in the fall, Kilgore learned about the URI ROTC program and joined. 

“My second semester freshman year, I started going to the ROTC class to get introduced, but I wouldn’t say I was immediately sold,” Kilgore said. “Because I was in the Army already, I felt more inclined to do it. But once I got fully involved, especially my junior year when we got leadership positions, that’s when I fully started to enjoy myself in the program and get to know other cadets.”

Nakena Kilgore poses for a photo at the Military Ball hosted by the URI ROTC program at the Providence Convention Center. (Photos courtesy of Nakena Kilgore)

Kilgore elected to do the split training offered by the National Guard; this allowed her to complete her educational requirements while participating in the ROTC program and staying in school full-time. This opportunity gave Kilgore the chance to continue her studies in the kinesiology department while serving in the National Guard. 

Kilgore arrived at URI as a health sciences major, but decided she wanted something slightly more specific as she began taking classes. She found herself drawn to kinesiology, switched her major and started taking courses in her new focus. 

Some of her favorite classes have been Fundamentals of Resistance Training with Associate Professor Christie Ward-Ritacco and Fitness Programs for Individuals with Chronic Diseases with Professor Matthew Delmonico. 

The experience she has most enjoyed as a kinesiology major, however, has been the opportunity to participate in Assistant Professor Ryan Chapman’s Biomechanics and Wearables Lab. Here, Kilgore helped on a project that examined how the pelvis changes in expectant mothers throughout pregnancy to predict how challenging their birth would be and how they may be affected postpartum. 

Kilgore said maternity and obstetrics studies had already been an interest of hers, so helping in the lab was an opportunity that really appealed to her, and even showed her what she wanted to do long term. 

“To be able to go into his lab and actually experience that next level of education was kind of eye opening,” said Kilgore. “And that’s when I knew I either wanted to go to grad school and maybe get my doctorate.” 

Chapman was impressed with Kilgore’s contributions in the research process. What set Kilgore apart from other researchers in the field, he said, was her genuine interest in the project. She was not participating for the glory of getting a paper published, but simply to learn and be a part of an important study. 

“Rather than vanity, Nakena is driven by an earnest desire to improve the station of individuals who may not otherwise be able to do so, by making our health care system a more equitable place,” Chapman said. “Although it is in its early stages, her work in my lab has the potential to fundamentally alter the medical industry, and more importantly save lives.” 

Between all her other responsibilities, Kilgore has served as an RA for two years. She lived in Gorham Hall last year where she oversaw first-year students and navigated COVID-19 in the dorms. 

Now, she lives in Eddy Hall as a senior RA and shares a suite with underclassmen who are mostly kinesiology majors. She said this has helped her develop a mentor relationship with many of her residents, helping guide them on what classes to take and what internships they should apply to.

“Being able to provide that advice comes full circle for me, because I remember when I was in that position, and I was looking up to the underclassmen and upperclassmen,” Kilgore said. “So being able to provide that really hits home. Even for my residents who aren’t in my major, I feel I’m still able to provide life advice, and being able to provide that as an RA is cool.” 

Something that helped Kilgore get to this point was the support and structure of the Talent Development program at URI. She praised current Talent Development Director Gerald Williams and her previous adviser Robert Britto-Oliveira for helping her become the student she is today.

Their support, as well as that of her sisters in P.I.N.K. Women (Powerful, Independent, Notoriously Knowledgeable Women), has allowed Kilgore to flourish in the community among all of her obligations.

“The drive for me is to be successful in life, and I feel like being a part of P.I.N.K., being a TD scholar, being in the Army has helped me take these steps to set myself up for success,” she said. “I wouldn’t do any of this if I wasn’t interested or passionate about helping people, being hands on or wanting to be successful.” 

After commencement, Kilgore will travel to a military base in Kentucky for a few months and then to a base in Canada to continue training. Right now, the military is her focus, but once her contract is completed, she plans to come back to Rhode Island and pursue a master’s degree in kinesiology and then get out into the field. 

If there was anything she learned at URI, she said, it was to “never settle.” 

“Always be open to changing your major, joining that club, getting that minor or exploring new things because you never know what awaits you,” Kilgore said. “Don’t have tunnel vision, because you might be knocking away an opportunity that could serve you very well, especially at URI. Something I learned being a part of all these programs was that all of these resources were available to me.” 

Kate LeBlanc, a senior journalism and political science major at the University of Rhode Island and an intern in the Department of Communications and Marketing, wrote this press release.