Kamehameha Maui senior gets pick of top-tier schools

Raboy-McGowan says essay key in acceptance to Harvard, Stanford, others

Kawehi Raboy-McGowan (left) and Ryan Aipa play with a flying disc Wednesday afternoon during the Big Brothers Big Sisters of Maui after-school mentoring program at Kamehameha Schools Maui. Raboy-McGowan, a Kamehameha Maui senior, has been accepted to a variety of top-tier schools, including Harvard and Stanford. -- The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

When he got a phone call last month saying he had been accepted into Harvard University, “it was super surprising” to Kawehi Raboy-McGowan, an “island boy” raised by his grandparents in Paukukalo Hawaiian Homes.

“I broke down in tears because it felt like the struggles I went through in my childhood and upbringing, as well as the immense effort I put into my schooling, was finally coming to fruition,” Raboy-McGowan said.

But the news wasn’t so surprising to some in the Big Brothers Big Sisters of Maui after-school mentoring program at Kamehameha Schools Maui, where the teenager has volunteered as a mentor for the past two years.

“He’s so well rounded. He’s well spoken,” said Skye Horie, a school-based mentoring program case manager for the nonprofit organization. “He’s just got that good energy about him.

“When I considered that, I wasn’t surprised at all.”

Kawehi Raboy-McGowan helps 5th-grader Ryan Aipa with his geometry homework Wednesday afternoon in the Kamehameha Schools Maui Paiea Learning Center. Raboy-McGowan, a senior, has been a mentor to 11-year-old Ryan in the Big Brothers Big Sisters of Maui after-school mentoring program at the school. -- The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

The 18-year-old senior has been mentor, or “big,” for 11-year-old Ryan Aipa, a 5th-grader.

The two are among 11 pairs of students — a high-schooler matched with an elementary student — who meet for an hour after school on Wednesdays in the Paiea Learning Center on the elementary school campus.

Some days the students work on homework. Other days they participate in sports or other activities.

“This program really focuses on kids that had a different kind of upbringing,” Raboy-McGowan said. “I really relate to that kind of situation because I was that same kid too when I was younger.

“When I come here, I try to be that person I would have wanted when I was a kid. So it kind of connected me on that level as well.”

Raboy-McGowan said he was a baby and toddler when he was physically abused by his father. Raboy-McGowan recounted how his father neglected to care for Raboy-McGowan’s baby brother “and even went so far as to leave him in front of the front doors of Wal-Mart” before calling his grandparents to pick up the child.

His parents drank heavily, smoked cigarettes and would get into fights, Raboy-McGowan said.

He was about 8 years old when he last saw his father, who was incarcerated for abusing Raboy-McGowan’s mother, then for trying to rob a bank.

Raboy-McGowan was raised by his grandparents, Melody and Walter Raboy, and considers them his biggest role models along with his uncle Wade Raboy.

His grandparents and uncle “have shaped me into the person I am today and have given me a second chance at life,” Raboy-McGowan said.

Through the Big Brothers Big Sisters mentoring program, Raboy-McGowan said he and Ryan have become comfortable talking about anything. The two share hobbies, including LEGOs and video games, as well as a love of math.

“It was perfect between me and Ryan,” Raboy-McGowan said Wednesday afternoon while helping Ryan with his geometry homework.

“I know he’s really smart,” Ryan said. “He’s really fun.”

Before being matched with Raboy-McGowan, Ryan was asked what he wanted in a “big.” He said his response was “someone who is active and that could help me with my homework if I needed help — and somebody who knows when to talk and when not to talk.”

Both students are graduating this year, with Ryan moving on to intermediate school in the fall.

For Raboy-McGowan, the college choices have expanded.

Since receiving a March 8 phone call from a Harvard admissions officer giving him early notice of his admission, he has received acceptance notices from Stanford, Yale and Princeton universities.

After learning about the financial aid he would receive for college, Raboy-McGowan said he was “super relieved.”

“I come from a poor family,” he said. “That’s the main reason I’m able to look at these colleges. They’re super generous.

“I’m grateful that these colleges gave me the opportunity to attend their schools.”

He will get additional financial help as the recipient of two scholarships, one for $10,000 and another for $5,000.

The good news arrived as Raboy-McGowan completes a “loaded” senior year that included playing varsity football and participating in the National Honor Society.

He plans to major in mechanical engineering before pursuing a graduate degree in aerospace engineering.

Raboy-McGowan said he has wanted to go to college since starting kindergarten at Kamehameha Schools Maui. “That was always my goal,” he said. “My grandparents have always pushed me. They always set high standards for me.”

As the time got closer, he decided to apply to Harvard “just to see what happened.”

With a 5 percent acceptance rate and about 40,000 applicants, “I wasn’t expecting to get in,” Raboy-McGowan said.

Although he has a nearly 4.0 grade-point average, Raboy-McGowan said, “I’m no valedictorian. There’s a bunch of people that have higher GPAs.”

“You can’t just get in with scores,” he said. “You have to be different.”

So in essays accompanying his college applications, Raboy-McGowan wrote about how his family and upbringing shaped his goals.

“The things that happened, that’s what drove me, that’s what motivated me to do good,” he said. “I saw school as my ticket to be better than my parents and not end up like them.”

He also wrote about giving back to the community by volunteering with Big Brothers Big Sisters.

Raboy-McGowan has consistently attended the mentoring sessions, at times working with other “littles” who need a “big,” Horie said.

“He truly understands our program,” she said. “He came into our program not just because he wanted to do volunteer work. He really felt the mission to support a child in a way that he was not supported himself as a child.”

She said that the relationship between Raboy-McGowan and Ryan “is one of the most solid we have here.”

“They just roll with it,” she said.

Raboy-McGowan left Friday to join other potential freshmen at Harvard’s admitted-student weekend. He also plans to visit Stanford before deciding by May 1 which college he will attend in the fall.

After getting the phone call from Harvard while he was at school, Raboy-McGowan called his grandparents.

“They just broke down crying. They’re super happy,” he said.

That same day, he told Horie before others arrived for the mentoring program.

She announced it to the other students.

“I wanted these kids to know one of our own got into Harvard,” she said. “I wanted them to know ‘you can do it too.’

“To me, that’s the message. We think we’re so limited. But if you work hard and you apply yourself and reach for the stars, anything is possible.”

* Lila Fujimoto can be reached at lfujimoto@mauinews.com.