Hana High School seniors Diana Naihe, Leihulu Oliveira and Jora Tolentino-Smith are the most recent students from the remote East Maui school to win the Gates Millennium scholarship, which gives them a "free ride" college education, as far as it goes, even if they pursue doctorates.
"I was speechless. I was so excited," said Naihe, 17. "Now I know my parents don't have to help me with college."
She plans to be a nurse practitioner and seek a doctorate in Native Hawaiian health from the University of Hawaii at Manoa.
"I'm super happy," she said, adding that members of her family were "screaming before I opened up the envelope" with the award letter inside. "They knew I got it already."
She is the daughter of Donalyn and Leonard Naihe. She's the youngest girl in a family of five girls and three boys.
Oliveira, 17, said she felt relieved to learn she had received the prestigious scholarship.
"It was the greatest feeling ever," she said. "I knew my parents didn't have to worry anymore about sending me to college . . . It was a major weight lifted off our shoulders."
She is the daughter of William and Kaui Oliveira. The lifelong Hana resident is the youngest in the family and has two brothers and a sister.
Oliveira has her eye on majoring in psychology and attending Seattle University, which she visited in January.
"I kind of fell in love with the place," she said.
She said she knows she'd need to get accustomed to cold temperatures, but the Emerald City's famous rainy weather shouldn't be a problem because it rains a lot in Hana too.
Oliveira said her goal is to earn a doctorate and become a psychologist or a professor of psychology.
If she had not received the Gates scholarship, "I don't even know if I'd go to college," she said. "It wouldn't be this much of a possibility."
The students' excitement about the scholarships has extended to family, friends and others in Hana, she said.
"The whole Hana community has been really supportive," Oliveira said.
She credited counselor Linda Gravatt with helping the students gain the scholarship.
"She has been a really big help in the whole experience," she said.
Tolentino-Smith could not be reached for comment by The Maui News on Tuesday, but she told Honolulu Civil Beat, the online news website, that receiving the Gates scholarship has been "life-changing" because she didn't believe she or her family, who mostly live off the land, could afford a college education.
"We don't really need a lot of money so don't really worry about that stuff," she told Civil Beat. "Now I can do whatever I want to do."
She said she wants to study Hawaiian language and Hawaiian studies at either the University of Hawaii at Hilo or Montana State University. Her goal is to be a Hawaiian language teacher and to start a Hawaiian language school on Maui.
Gravatt said the scholarship application process is "very rigorous" and submissions must be "perfect."
"It's a lot of work," she said.
But Hana has certainly gained a place on the map of those who award Gates scholarships, she said.
"A big part of it is growing up in Hana," Gravatt said. "It's very isolated from everything."
The students all have earned top grades throughout high school, have been involved in cultural activities, service projects and leadership, she said. And, they all have compelling stories.
"In order to write a story, you have to have something to write about," Gravatt said. "They do. They did a good job. It's an amazing opportunity."
Hana Principal Rick Paul also credited Gravatt with inspiring and helping the students achieve the scholarships. Now, Hana can boast as many as 10 Gates scholars, he added.
"We seem to be on the radar with the Gates folks," Paul said, adding that those awarding the scholarships think the students can make a difference in their isolated community.
"Hana is an island on an island," he said. "I think they really see this is a way to impact the community."
Previous Gates scholars from Hana have all "done very well," Paul said.
He added that he'd like to see the scholars return home, have a reunion in Hana and inspire students their with stories about their college experiences.
* Brian Perry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.