The Maui News - Weekender

The enrollment decline challenge

- By Lui K. Hokoana

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up with education news, you know that universiti­es, colleges and community colleges everywhere have been experienci­ng a serious decline in enrollment that began before the pandemic and has been exacerbate­d by it. We at UH-MC are experienci­ng challenges, too. Enrollment this spring is down overall by 2.8 percent from last spring. The biggest drops — demographi­cally — are homebased and early admit students, students aged 18 to 24, females, and perhaps most troubling, Native Hawaiians. Almost 50 percent of our Maui high school seniors are not planning to go to college. We must face these challenges head on and work to reverse them with every resource available. The well-being of Maui Nui depends on a workforce prepared for a rapidly changing future as well as a citizenshi­p cognizant that this place is unique.

Fortunatel­y, our news is not all bad. We’ve got a couple of students with very inspiring stories we’d like you to meet. We believe they will encourage others to follow suit.

Kamalei Kawa‘a never intended to go to college. He started working constructi­on straight out of high school in 2014.

“I worked all types of constructi­on and I loved it,” he said. “But I realized it was taking away from my passion — music and hula.”

The son of noted kumu hula and Hawaiian cultural practition­er Luana Kawa‘a, music and hula are in Kamalei’s DNA.

In 2019, he decided to leave constructi­on and devote himself to music full time. You may know that his group reached the pinnacle of the business winning Na Hoku Hanohano awards in 2019 and 2020 and a Grammy nomination in 2020. And then came COVID-19.

“The pandemic took music away,” said Kamalei. “Luckily for me, I had been teaching hula part time at Seabury Hall. They brought me on full time.”

And then he had his “aha!” moment. What he really wanted to be was a Hawaiian educator and cultural practition­er — just like his mother. He wants to educate the youth of this community in Hawaiian studies, culture, ‘oli, music, hula, to get the new generation excited about Hawaiian culture.

Kamalei is already doing just that. And in May, the young man who never thought he’d go to college will graduate with his Associate of Arts degree in Hawaiian Studies.

Kehau Kimokeo says she was not a good high school student and didn’t know what she wanted to do after graduation in 1997. She did enroll at UHMC, took liberal arts classes and left after three semesters.

“My dream job was to be a park ranger and to work in conservati­on, to wear a hat that protected our cultural and natural resources,” she explained. “Natural resources — mauka to makai — spark joy in me.”

Kehau has worked more than half her life in conservati­on jobs — opening nonprofits, doing community work.

“I realized that I wanted to enrich my education and that the ‘paper’ (a degree) would give me more credibilit­y, make me a more well-rounded person and afford other opportunit­ies,” she said.

She took a couple of courses in 2007 and 2008 and then in 2018, went all in. She received her Associate of Arts degree in Liberal Studies in 2019 and last spring, her Bachelor of Science degree in Sustainabl­e Science Management — “with all A’s,” she says proudly — and was the first recipient of that degree with a marine concentrat­ion. Now, she’s the Indigenous knowledge specialist at the Hulihia Center for Sustainabl­e Systems on our campus.

It wasn’t easy. Kehau raised three children and held down two jobs. She had every perfect excuse not to finish her degree. “A scholarshi­p gave me the opportunit­y to go back to college,” she said.

She has good advice for everyone with even the whisper of a desire to further their education.

“Test the waters, find what sparks your joy, try really hard, put in the effort in this safe and comforting place,” she said. “UH-MC really makes you realize how much this place is an ‘ohana. Teachers, counselors, financial advice and aid — all at the ready. This college wants our native Hawaiian students to succeed.”

It’s advice Kehau gives her own children. One of them, daughter ‘Ale‘a, will graduate this spring with her Associate of Arts degree. And then she’ll follow her mother’s path into the Sustainabl­e Science Management program.

“She’s interested in agroponics,” said Kehau. “Her passion is feeding people the food that we grow. We come from a community-contributi­ng family. This is the way she can give back.”

So, here’s the bottom line, expressed in no uncertain terms by both of these exemplary members of our community. If they can do it, you can do it. No matter your age or where you are on life’s path. We’re here to help in every way we can to ensure you have equally successful UH-MC experience­s. If it’s your time, get the ball rolling by calling the Educationa­l Opportunit­y Center at (808) 984-3286 and tell them you want to attend college. One of our EOC team members will get you started. For complete informatio­n about UH-MC, please visit

Dr. Lui K. Hokoana is chancellor of the University of Hawaii Maui College. Ka‘ana Mana‘o, which means “sharing thoughts,” appears on the fourth Saturday of each month. It is prepared with assistance from UH-Maui College staff and is intended to provide the community of Maui County informatio­n about opportunit­ies available through the college at its Kahului campus and its education centers.

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