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Molokai scholar has big plans for a small gastropod

KA‘ANA MANA‘O

Growing up in a large family on the east side of Molokai, Kiloaulani Ka’awa-Gonzales fondly remembers harvesting hihiwai to be served at summertime graduation and birthday parties. “Now, as an adult, I never see them at parties. They’re not served anymore because there are so few of them,” he says.

If you’re not familiar with hihiwai, you’re not alone. No worries. Because Kiloaulani is working hard to ensure these freshwater snails endemic to Hawaii make a big comeback. This Molokai-based Ka Hikina O Ka La scholar is currently a Colorado State University student pursuing his Master of Science degree in Fish, Wildlife and Conservation Biology, the same discipline in which he earned his bachelor’s degree from CSU. He does his course work at the Fort Collins, Colo., campus and his field work on his home island.

(Ka Hikina O Ka La is a specialized program here at University of Hawaii Maui College that provides a learning environment that integrates Native Hawaiian cultural knowledge and practices into modern scientific technology and instruction.)

When you talk to Kiloaulani, you will feel his passion for his family, his mentors, his ‘aina and his community. His “big picture” is “to help develop natural resource specialists for our island and from our island — work done by Native Hawaiians on our island.” And his way there is through the hihiwai.

“This idea came out of conversations with mentors and families about what would benefit the community because it focuses on something the community utilizes, needs and cares about.

“Hihiwai is also known as wi and wi means famine. In ancient Hawaii, it was a famine food. It only developed into a preferred food much later.

“They’re an amphidromous species. They depend on both streams and the ocean for their development. They lay their eggs in the streams, the larvae are washed into the ocean for three to five months, and then they return to the streams as ‘recruits’ or baby hihiwai. During the first three or four months in the stream they grow really fast. Once they’ve completed that initial growth spurt, they grow really slowly and can live 10 years. To get one that’s really big takes a long time.”

Kiloaulani has been preparing his path for a long time. Educated from kindergarten through 6th grade in Hawaiian language immersion, he graduated from Molokai High School. He was involved in sports and, with his family, fishing, farming and hunting. He worked with the Nature Conservancy and Land Trust. He participated in numerous Hawaiian cultural activities through Na Pua No’eau (Center for Gifted and Talented Native Hawaiian Children). “It was a way to be around other passionate youth, to learn through doing and how I can love my ‘aina more.”

Along the way, he built his resume — through his community service and Hawaiian cultural activities — with an eye toward college and post-graduate degree scholarships. He applied for more than 35 academic scholarships and was awarded several.

He was a Coca-Cola Scholar coming out of high school and that funded his undergraduate work. He was awarded the Udall Scholarship (Tucson, Ariz.), a national scholarship for minorities pursuing environmental work, a Harry S. Truman Scholarship for public service (building capacity in the Hawaiian community and natural resources), and his Ka Hikina O Ka La scholarship funded a portion of his post-graduate work.

The moral of his story, in his own words, is: “Start planning early. Build your resume. Apply, apply, apply and don’t be scared.”

This is, in fact, scholarship season so we encourage high school students and their families to start the process as soon as possible.

Kiloaulani’s goal is big. It is also achievable. “I’m developing conservation recommendations to which Molokai is receptive that is backed up by science. The Western approach and traditional ecological knowledge can be used in tandem. Indigenous knowledge is its own science.”

He wants a management position in a natural resources or environmental agency on Molokai. “I am from this community. It invested so much in raising me and developing me. I want to incorporate the community’s voice in the decision-making process.” He is also paving the way for other young people in our community. Just imagine, parents, what your high school student could do.

For information about Ka Hikina O Ka La, please visit maui.hawaii.edu/hikina/. For information about other scholarships, please visit maui.hawaii.edu/eoc/scholarships/. For many financial assistance options, please visit maui.hawaii.edu/financial/.

Learn about all UH-Maui College’s programs of study at maui.hawaii.edu/programs-of-study/.

* Lui K. Hokoana, Ph.D., is chancellor of the University of Hawaii Maui College. “Ka’ana Mana’o,” which means “Sharing Thoughts,” is scheduled to appear 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.