Life pretty normal, says student from Molokai who is headed to Harvard

Despite spending a week in the nation’s capital, shaking President Barack Obama’s hand and being accepted into Harvard University, Michael Kikukawa’s life is “still pretty normal,” he said.

“My life is dominated by school,” he said. “I don’t have to apply to any more colleges, which is nice.”

In December, Kikukawa became the first Molokai High School student in the school’s 84-year history to be accepted into Harvard. And last month, the senior was selected as a delegate to the 51st annual United States Senate Youth Program in Washington, D.C.

“It was probably the best week of my life,” he said about his trip to the capital.

Kikukawa and Keagan Sakai-Kawada of Hilo were among 104 student delegates – two chosen from each state – at the program and had the opportunity to study the federal government.

They also met with government officials, including President Obama.

“I shook his hand. He was really nice,” said Kikukawa, who was placed directly in front of the president during his speech to the student delegates at the White House. “He chuckled when I told him I was from Molokai . . . He said, ‘What’s up with the Oahu kids?’ “

The high school senior visited the Jefferson and Lincoln memorials, along with a special dinner in the Rotunda of the National Archives Building that displays the Constitution, the Bill of Rights and the Declaration of Independence.

“It was pretty amazing,” he said.

Although these experiences have become the new normal for Kikukawa, who was born and raised in Kaunakakai, it is a life he expected.

In his sophomore year, he began inquiring about Ivy League schools, including Harvard.

“He came to me and said he wanted to apply to Harvard,” said Earl Nakamura, a retired teacher and vice principal with the school. Nakamura still has an office at the school and counsels younger students about college.

“I contacted the school and showed him the email they sent back and said this is exactly what you need to do,” he said.

Kikukawa piled on advanced placement classes and got involved with a number of student organizations. He was a volunteer in Mufi Hannemann’s congressional campaign, worked in the Governor’s Office and took classes at Iolani School on Oahu.

“I’ve had lots of bright kids through the years, but Michael always takes it a step further,” said Nancy Lawrence, who taught Kikukawa honors English in 9th and 10th grade, as well as AP literature in 11th. “He doesn’t just go for the grade,” she said. “He’s really interested and intellectually curious.”

Currently, he is the student government president, Hawaii State Student Council vice chairman and holds about a half-dozen more positions in state and schoolwide organizations.

“His resume is two pages long,” Nakamura said. The counselor said Kikukawa’s success is influencing younger high school students.

“You got 8th- and 9th-graders looking at Stanford and Ivy League schools,” he said. “So I tell them this is the time to apply and start working.”

However, even with his laundry list of accomplishments and accolades, Kikukawa is still surprised and nervous about attending the prestigious school.

“When I’m given the opportunity, I think ‘Wow, I’m gonna be going there in less than a year,’ ” he said. “It amazes me. I’m really nervous about, not necessarily competing against other students, but handling that level of academic rigor and still have a life.”

The senior graduating in May said he’s nervous about how to pay for the university’s $52,652 tuition and room-and-board fees.

Kikukawa has accrued about $15,000 in scholarship money and is constantly checking the mail for scholarships and financial aid.

With his future set for Harvard and a career possibly in law or political science, Kikukawa said people expect him to be “something grand like the next governor of Hawaii.”

But Kikukawa said people told him he could open an ice cream shop and they’d still be proud of him.

“That meant a lot because it made me realize that the community will always support me,” he said.

* Chris Sugidono can be reached at