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Maui holds only in-person graduation in UH system

Class of 2021 endured full school year under pandemic

University of Hawaii Maui College graduate Nina Josue (from left) and fellow graduate and daughter Niya Matutino pose with Chancellor Lui Hokoana during commencement Saturday morning on the Kahului campus. Josue graduated with honors with her Associate of Science degree in dental hygiene. Matutino earned her Associate of Science degree in administration of justice. Josue shouted, “That’s my baby,” and pointed to Matutino as she was receiving her diploma. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photos

In 2019, Nina Josue was living in a friend’s garage with four kids and struggling to make ends meet.

People thought she was crazy when she decided to enroll in college.

“They said, ‘Why don’t you get a job?'” Josue recalled. “I said, ‘Well, because I’m not thinking about today. God is taking care of today. We just have to think about our future.'”

On Saturday, Josue walked across the University of Hawaii Maui College stage to accept her associates degree in dental hygiene alongside her 20-year-old daughter Niya Matutino, who earned an associates degree in administration of justice.

“We went through a whole lot of hurdles financially, economically, spiritually and physically,” Josue, 40, said Sunday. “We struggled a lot and we made it through against all odds. I’m very proud of my daughter, as well as myself.”

Nursing grad Mark Christian Realin may have graduated Saturday with honors, but his mortarboard acknowledges the difficult challenges of attending college during the pandemic. “We stayed together and pulled through,” said Realin, who earned his associate’s degree in nursing.

Nothing came easy to the 600 UH-MC students and 121 UH Center students who earned their diplomas in a school year that started in the thick of the pandemic.

“The class of 2020 might’ve been the ones associated with the pandemic in the history books,” said celebrated local chef and Maui Culinary Academy graduate Sheldon Simeon, commencement speaker for the second of two ceremonies on Saturday. “But you were the real troopers. You toughed this thing out for an entire school year.

“Sure, most of you may have done it in your pajamas, still get choke makapiapia in the eye. Never even brush your guys teeth, I know. But you still made it to the finish line and that’s what counts. And for those of you continuing on in education, you guys is nuts.”

UH-Maui was the only one of the 10 UH system campuses to hold a face-to-face graduation, UH-Maui Chancellor Lui Hokoana said, adding that students had chosen an in-person ceremony over a drive-thru commencement.

Graduation was the first large gathering on campus since the pandemic started, signaling a return “to some sense of normalcy,” Hokoana said. However, the college still asked attendees to wear masks given the size of the crowd.

Two separate events were held to safely accommodate graduates and their guests, with students divided by degree programs. Ninety participated in the 9 a.m. ceremony, while 119 joined in the 5 p.m. ceremony.

“This class will have the distinction of graduating during a pandemic, but it will also be distinguished by its service to this community,” Hokoana said. “Our nursing students have assisted to administer hundreds of COVID shots. Our culinary students not only fed their classmates during the pandemic, but they also made hundreds of lunches to feed our volunteers supporting the Department of Health vaccination POD. Our fashion technology students provided hundreds of masks to community members. Our engineer tech students helped fabricate face shields.”

The school’s campus team has also shared classroom space with COVID-19 contact tracers since September, and the college has served as a mass vaccination site since December.

“I am extremely proud of how the Maui College ohana has stepped up to support the Maui Nui community, and we look to continue this work post-pandemic,” Hokoana said.

Nursing graduate Mark Christian Realin was among the many students who aided in the fight against COVID-19. Realin logged about 36 hours in vaccination clinics and about 16 hours of COVID-19 testing for employees at the airport around August.

The efforts helped to replace some of the clinical hours that Realin missed in previous semesters due to the pandemic. Realin said it was a tough transition, especially in a field where hands-on experience is vital. He and his classmates spent hours doing virtual simulations and classes through Zoom.

“When we were doing our online virtual simulations, we press these buttons on the computer, but you don’t really have that communication with patients,” Realin said. “We were off from (in-person) clinicals for eight months, so it was kind of hard going back, but the last semester it was pretty good because at least we had some clinical experiences before we take our NCLEX and before we start working in the real nursing field.”

The 2016 Maui High graduate said he’s grateful to his family and the UH-Maui faculty, who “did an amazing job” navigating online instruction, learning how to use virtual programs and dealing with constantly changing schedules.

“No other cohort, or probably the next cohorts, would be able to say we went through nursing school during a pandemic,” Realin said. “And getting those experiences and helping with public health, it’s such an important aspect in nursing.”

Realin plans to work at Maui Memorial Medical Center while pursuing his bachelor’s in nursing from UH-Manoa and then earn his master’s in advanced nursing, also from UH-Manoa.

Big things are also ahead for Josue and her daughter, who are relocating to Hilo where Josue will work as a dental hygienist for two years as part of the Papa Ola Lokahi Native Hawaiian Health scholarship she earned. In exchange for tuition, a monthly living stipend and other school expenses, scholarship recipients serve two to four years in medically underserved locations in Hawaii.

For Josue, the scholarship was an answer to prayer. Born and raised in Waianae, she moved to Maui four years ago but got divorced shortly after, leaving her homeless. She moved into a friend’s converted garage with three bunk beds, “a TV next to the stove and the icebox next to the TV.”

A big believer in education, Josue sent her kids to Kamehameha Maui and set her sights on a second college degree. Her good grades and history of community service — she’d been a nurse since 2004, working in hospitals, schools and eventually doing in-home visits as an independent contractor for some of the hardest-to-reach clients — landed her the Papa Ola Lokahi scholarship. Josue decided on the career shift because she noticed the need for dental hygienists, especially in rural communities. The program will also cover her continuing education if she decides to become a doctor or dentist.

Taking classes with her daughter at UH-Maui helped keep them both on track, and on Saturday their hard work came to a head as they shared the stage together. Josue said Matutino is considering becoming a juvenile counselor and eventually a lawyer.

“God got me through it all. He showed me a door even if I didn’t realize there was one,” Josue said. “You just continue to walk and believe and have faith that everything will work out well.”

* Colleen Uechi can be reached at cuechi@mauinews.com.

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