Top of the class: Three HHS seniors reach mutual goal

  • Roland Afaga, Zhanelyn Cacho and Rod Neil Burbano are among six HHS valedictorians who will graduate from Honokaa High School this Saturday. (LANDRY FULLER/SPECIAL TO WEST HAWAII TODAY)

HONOKAA — Zhanelyn Cacho, Roland Afaga and Rod Neil Burbano are outstanding students, each with their own unique aspirations. One wants to become a lawyer, another a computer engineer and the third a doctor.

But they have one thing in common: all will stand together as valedictorians at Honokaa High &Intermediate School’s graduation ceremony this Saturday.


“I’ve wanted to be a valedictorian since elementary school,” Cacho said.

Their senior class has a total of six valedictorians this year. Each maintained a 4.0 grade point average or higher, in addition to rigorous course work.

While juggling AP classes, some of which were online, Cacho also served on four school clubs. One in particular took her out of her comfort zone.

“Honokaa High School Jazz Band was a different form of expression for me. I had to learn how to stand up and express myself without words,” she said. “Mr. Washburn also put us in an all-girls band and that was a totally different platform for me.”

Cacho said her leadership class was also rewarding.

“We do a lot for our community and school. One of my favorite things is the community Thanksgiving dinner,” she said.

Cacho also volunteers for the National Honor Society.

“As the president I help to find events where we can volunteer and give back,” Cacho said. “In late April we had a Blue Zones booth at the Parker Ranch Center’s food court to help teach people about different fruits and vegetables.”

She is also one of four students who traveled around the island as part of Ka Hana No’eau, a community-based program for children in North Kohala, Hamakua and South Kona, to learn more about the Hawaiian culture.

To mentor other students, she volunteered for UPLINK, an after-school tutoring program.

“I’ve worked with anywhere from six to 18 eighth-graders to teach them about history, math and anything they’re struggling in,” Cacho said. “I also teach them strings and they call me ‘the concert master.’ I love them. They’re my kids.”

Last year, she learned about an organization called HOSA (Health Occupations Students of America) and joined Ka’u High School’s program. The organization includes a leadership development program that allowed Cacho to participate in state and international speech competitions the past two years, where she placed in the top 20 nationally.

“We competed in different concentrations, like psychology or nursing. I had to research a topic and do a five-minute speech,” she said. “My first year my speech was on smartphones, and this year it was a biomedical engineering debate.”

As a result of her hard work, Cacho has been accepted at Georgetown University and plans to study government and history.

“I want to be a government lawyer and work in public policy and probably move back here,” she said.

Afaga has been their class president for all four years of high school.

“It has helped me get a better view of what goes on in our school, and it helped me see different types of people and activities students like to do,” he said. “Senior Merch — a merchandise event we held recently — helped unite our class more.”

Afaga plans to attend Santa Clara University this fall, thanks to a $10,000 Google scholarship he received designated for low-income, first generation students.

“The scholarship is for students who want to pursue a degree in computer science. I thought that was a perfect fit for me,” Afaga said. “I took AP computer science last year and this helped me see what kind of things you can do with computer science as a degree.”

He was also selected to attend a three-week camp this summer taught by Google engineers in a classroom at the company’s Seattle headquarters.

“At the camp, the engineers teach you everything they know so that when you go to college you have that stepping stone to guide you throughout the years,” Afaga said.

At HHS, Jamie Bowman was one of his biggest mentors.

“She led our cultural journalism class, where we went around the island taking videos to better establish a cultural identity within our school. We shared them at our ohana nights and with our parents,” he said.

Burbano and his family moved to the Big Island from the Philippines almost four year ago.

“I’m very thankful that one teacher, Ms. Miguel, helped me to learn the English language and really practice it through communication and social interaction,” he said. “She taught me to believe in myself and always pushed me to aim high.”

Burbano ranked number one in his class throughout elementary school in the Philippines.

“I wanted to achieve the highest academic standards here too,” he said. “I’ve taken AP calculus, and AP statistics is my favorite class because I really understand the concepts and what we’re learning.”

Arlene Fujioka, a HHS counselor, said she is proud of his accomplishments despite the language barriers.

“He has worked hard to do well academically,” she said. “And he tutors other students twice a week.”

Most of these are Micronesian.

“After school I help children who are English language learners like me,” Burbano said. “I know how hard it is to learn the lessons presented. I help them bring up their grades and help with their homework.”

This fall he will go to UH-Hilo, where he plans to major in biology.


“I want to pursue a career in the medical field as a doctor, probably a gastroenterologist,” Burbano said. “When I was a child my mother suffered from gastroesophageal reflux disease and I thought I was going to lose her. With the help of the medical field I was inspired to pursue a career that would enable me to help other people, like my mom’s doctor did for her.”

At Saturday’s graduation ceremony, Cacho will give the opening address, followed by Afaga’s class president speech and Burbano with valedictorian remarks.

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