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Students share experiences graduating during pandemic

KA‘ANA MANA‘O

It was certainly a spring semester and graduation like no other. We hope many of you were able to join our streaming June 6th “virtual” graduation. Everyone — faculty, staff, students, parents, families, and friends — would, of course, have preferred the traditional ceremony and festivities. But, rest assured the graduating class of 2020 made us all proud. These students persevered under difficult circumstances, came through with flying colors, and continue to move forward.

“Bittersweet” is the word Mikiala Maynard uses to describe her final semester and graduation from our nursing program. “It was disappointing but understandable that graduation had to be ‘virtual.’ Every graduate has something to be really proud of and I wish I had been able to express that to all my classmates in person. The school really did pull through. The drive-thru celebration meant my parents got to see me get my diploma and take pictures with the chancellor. The school’s huge effort made me feel very special.”

Like all our graduates, Mikiala is special. Four years ago, she decided to pursue her lifelong dream of becoming a nurse. “As a child I had a sticker on my dresser that I had gotten at a doctor’s visit. It was shaped like a Band-Aid and said ‘Nurses Make Everything Better.’ Nurses give a tender touch when you need that care. That’s what I’ve always wanted to do.” She was accepted into our nursing program in 2018, just two months before her daughter was accepted into Kamehameha Schools. “2018 was a great year for us,” she says.

A single mother, she is what we call a “nontraditional student,” starting her college career in her 30s. “I wanted to show my daughter Kanoelani how important it is to get an education,” she says, “and that you can accomplish anything.”

Mikiala is a Phi Theta Kappa honors graduate and she received the nursing program’s volunteer service award. A full-time student and a full-time mother who performed more than 45 hours of community service during the 2019-20 year. We’re so proud and happy that Mikiala is already taking UH Manoa classes and will get her Bachelors Degree of science in nursing next spring. She’s planning to apply for a nurse residency program at Maui Memorial Medical Center. We think we’ll be pretty lucky to have her taking care of us right here at home.

Meili Jahja is our 2020 Outstanding Baking Award recipient and also a Phi Theta Kappa honors graduate — with a 4.0 average. Our Leis Family Class Act Restaurant Chef Instructor Tom Lelli calls her one of the best students he’s had in his 17 years of teaching. And Culinary Arts Program Director Pastry Chef Teresa Shurilla adds that it’s very unusual for a student to have Meili’s high level of skill in both cooking and baking.

Before COVID-19, Meili had been excitedly planning to head east to Johnson & Wales, one of the most prestigious culinary schools in the country. She had been offered a generous scholarship of $14,000 a year. But then . . .

“I’ve decided to defer until the Fall 2021 semester,” says Meili. “Fortunately, the scholarship will still be valid.” She will not be sitting around. Right now, she’s finishing up some baking class work that had been interrupted and then she’ll assist Chef Shurilla with the summer intermediate baking class. In the fall, “I’ve decided to spend one more year here at UH-MC and get a certificate in hospitality,” says Meili. “The extra year gives me time to save money before I move. And it’s reassuring to be home with my family during the pandemic and attend classes with my close friends for another year.” We’re happy she’s sticking around. And after she does receive her degree from Johnson & Wales, we know the sky’s the limit!

The transition to virtual learning was probably easiest for our ABIT (Applied Business and Information Technology) cohort. By its very nature, the program already had a good online presence. And we had a bumper crop of ABIT graduates this year — eleven in all, the largest class ever.

Our 2020 Regents Award winner is Brian Leeper. He is a U.S. Army veteran — he served as a medic in Alaska — and was also an EMT first responder before enrolling in our ABIT program. Program Coordinator Debasis Bhattacharya describes him as a “leader with humility.”

Brian is already hard at work at the Pacific Disaster Center, a world-class, global science and technology center based right here on Maui. According to PDC Director Ray Shirkhodai, “Brian joined us as an intern and besides having technical background, he proved to be a valuable team player and a quick learner.  So, we were happy to offer him a full-time position on the day of his graduation.” Brian is a Junior Test Engineer working on quality assurance and quality control of the center’s applications used by global partners to help to increase disaster management capacity and embolden more effective decisions, policies, and actions for a safer world.

He has some advice for current and future ABIT students, all college students really. “Networking is part of the college experience. I got my internship through networking. Don’t just go to class and go home. Get to know your instructors and your peers, as well. Help them. You never know how you might be able to help each other in the future.”

Bright futures, we believe, for all our 2020 grads.

We encourage everyone thinking about pursuing a college education to visit maui.hawaii.edu/programs-of-study/ to see all our program offerings. You’ll find we have something for everyone!

* Lui K. Hokoana is chancellor of the University of Hawaii Maui College. Ka’ana Mana’o, which means “sharing thoughts,” appears on the fourth Sunday 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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