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UH-Maui marks graduation with restrictions lifted

Chancellor says college seeing rise in graduates from first years of pandemic

Over 200 University of Hawaii Maui College graduates celebrate after receiving their diplomas on Saturday at the campus. The college also put out about 3,000 chairs for the audience and all of them were filled. University of Hawaii Maui College photo

Graduating from the University of Hawaii Maui College on Saturday meant the world to graphic design student Mark Cabalse.

“This graduation, especially, is a huge milestone, not only for me, but for my family because I am a first-generation college student,” said Cabalse, who is one of the first-ever graduates of the new Academy for Creative Media, a new art school within UH-MC that offers associate degrees in creative media, filmmaking and graphic design.

Last year, UH-Maui was the only campus in the UH system to hold an in-person graduation and scheduled two ceremonies to safely accommodate graduates and spectators. This year the college held one commencement ceremony with no spectator limit. It was the first since the pandemic without state and county COVID-19 restrictions, which were mostly lifted in March.

“The graduates were excited. The people in the audience were excited,” UH-Maui Chancellor Lui Hokoana said Sunday. “It was good just kind of putting us back on the path to what the new normal would look like, and yet there can still be this face-to-face interaction, which I think everybody was longing for.”

Hokoana said that of the 603 graduates from UH-Maui and 98 graduates from the University Center (students living on Maui and taking classes through UH-Manoa and UH-West Oahu), about 258 participated in person in Saturday’s ceremony. The rise in graduates from previous years was a positive sign for the college, which had about 700 graduates prior to COVID-19 and then saw numbers fall to about 500 during the pandemic, Hokoana said. He added that the college put out about 3,000 chairs for audience members and all of them were filled.

Graphic design graduate Mark Cabalse (center) holds his diploma from UH-Maui College during a photo with father Dominador Cabalse Jr. and mother Maggie Cabalse. Mark Cabalse courtesy photo

For graduates, Saturday was a chance to celebrate their accomplishments in spite of the pandemic.

“I learned a lot of valuable things at UH-MC and one of those things is to be confident within yourself and really stay true to your ideas because growing up I was really shy and reserved and I wasn’t confident within myself and my work,” said Cabalse on Wednesday afternoon before commencement. “UH-MC really taught that you should put value in your work, keep improving and you’ll get to whatever goal you want to achieve.”

This graduation is particularly special for the family, he said, explaining how his parents emigrated with him and his younger siblings from the Philippines in 2005 to pursue more opportunities in the United States, eventually settling on Maui.

“Growing up I loved doing arts and crafts. I had coloring books, I had plenty of sketchbooks that my mom would buy and I would draw,” he said, adding that he explored things like painting and ceramics at Maui Waena Intermediate before pursuing digital art at Maui High School, where he graduated summa cum laude in 2019. “I loved being creative.”

Though his parents were hesitant at first at their son’s career choice, instead encouraging him to choose the path of a doctor or lawyer, for example, they learned more about what graphic designers do and understood Cabalse’s deep passion for it.

Alec Bayer graduates from UH-MC’s Applied Business and Information Technology program at the top of his class. University of Hawaii Maui College photo

“It wasn’t this popular thing — you know what a doctor does, you know what an engineer does — but now they know more about it. I taught them stuff about what they do, so now they are super supportive,” he said. “I would show them my work throughout my college years and they were impressed. They got really excited, especially when I showed them my full-fledged T-shirt that I designed.”

Starting with freelance work, Cabalse hopes to one day open his own graphic design firm close to home, specializing in logo design and branding, as well as user interface design and web development.

“I really enjoyed working with my classmates and professors. They have really become like family to me and getting to work with familiar faces,” he said. “It felt like we were working at some design firm and we were at work and they were my colleagues, so that was pretty cool.”

Hokoana said during Saturday’s commencement that the students endured sudden changes to their schedules, class formats, and rules and regulations throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, but they still persevered to complete their degrees.

Among them was Alec Bayer, who graduated top in his class among UH-MC’s Applied Business and Information Technology program.

New UH-MC graduate Noah Dods Medeiros hopes to produce or direct his own movie someday with the knowledge and education gained through the Academy for Creative Media. Tanya Medeiros photo

“It’s been a different experience. I did miss some of the in-person classes, but there were definitely some classes where it was nice to be on Zoom as well,” Bayer noted. “You don’t get to know your classmates as much as you used to. That being said, I do appreciate the simplicity of not having to be at campus at a certain time — there was a lot more range. It also opened the doors to having a lot more guest speakers and things like that, so I think there were definitely a lot of good aspects to Zoom and allowing classes to do different things.”

Through it all, Bayer said that “I’ve had a lot of moments at UH-Maui that I’ve enjoyed.”

Having already completed two years of education through the Texas-based Lone Star College system after finishing up his home school high school program in 2013, Bayer said he’s “super looking forward” to life after college as he searches for career opportunities with nonprofits in Hawaii.

“I like working for causes that I feel are beneficial to the community,” he said. “So I’m going to be exploring jobs that work with people in a beneficial way. I just want to see what happens and I’m keeping my mind open, and see where it takes me. I’m sure I’m going to be doing a lot of different things in life.”

Media student Noah Dods Medeiros also received his diploma on Saturday.

At first, he was concerned that the entire event was going to be virtual like in previous years amid the pandemic but was later happy to hear that he could be accompanied by his Oahu and Maui family members at an in-person ceremony where was named “Most Outstanding Film Student.”

“During the pandemic, I didn’t have nearly as many in-person classes as I would have, but even though I was in that situation, being online, I still felt like I learned a lot and I have taken a lot of things away and I definitely have come out with a lot more knowledge about what my interests are,” the St. Anthony graduate said last week. “I’ve been interested in, for a long time, expressing a story up on a screen for an audience and having some kind of emotional impact on those people, so that’s sort of what I’m striving to do at the moment.”

One experience that stood out to him the most was working hands on with a television production as an assistant director, saying that “it was the highlight of my time at UH-MC.”

Medeiros, along with Cabalse, will be continuing his education at UH-West Oahu to complete a four-year Bachelor of Arts degree.

Born and raised on Maui, Medeiros plans to explore opportunities in Hawaii before branching out to the Mainland. Producing or directing his own movie someday would “make my world,” he said.

As the graduates enter their next stage of life, executive chef Kyle Kawakami, a former UH-MC culinary instructor and now owner of Maui Fresh Streatery Food Truck, provided five pieces of advice to achieve success: find a mentor, create a plan of action, chase dreams over money, be a teacher and give back to the community.

“One of the greatest things you can do to ensure success in your chosen field is to find a mentor,” said Kawakami, who gave the commencement address Saturday.

Early in his culinary career, Kawakami “was blessed to find” a mentor in the late chef Tylun Pang, who was scheduled to give the commencement address but died a few days prior, Kawakami said.

“To this day, his words of advice and actions drive my many daily activities,” he said. “You all now possess a certain specialized skill set, which all together, make up the fabric of our island community. . . . As you establish yourselves in your respective fields, don’t forget your roots and the community that created you.”

* Dakota Grossman can be reached at dgrossman@mauinews.com.

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