Bittersweet time for Big Island students graduating from college

  • Photo by Kelsey Walling/Tribune-Herald Kapua Kaulia has been attending Hawaii Community College’s Palamanui campus for three years, and this month, she will become the first in her family to graduate from college.

Kapua Kaulia, 37, has been attending Hawaii Community College’s Palamanui campus for three years. This week, she will become the first in her family to graduate from college.

Born and raised in Kona, Kaulia, the student government president, is graduating from HCC with an associate of arts in liberal arts and certificates in human services and Hawaii life styles. She plans to continue her education and pursue a bachelor’s degree in social work from UH-Manoa via distance learning.

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“It feels, I guess, surreal. Like I didn’t think that I (would) make it,” she said of reaching this milestone. “It took me longer than I thought it would.”

But the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has put a stop to commencement ceremonies at high schools and colleges around the country. Colleges and universities in Hawaii, and on Hawaii Island, are no different.

University of Hawaii President David Lassner announced in March that traditional commencement ceremonies at the 10 UH campuses — including HCC and the University of Hawaii at Hilo — would be canceled.

Commencement for HCC’s Hilo campus was originally set for today, while UH-Hilo’s graduation ceremony was originally scheduled for Saturday.

“I was kind of sad I’m not going to be able to walk the line, because I didn’t get that chance when I was in high school,” Kaulia said. “So I was kind of looking forward to walking the line.”

Instead, to honor its 584 graduates, HCC spokesman Thatcher Moats said the college is creating a “virtual” commencement video to share with graduating students and the community.

The video — which HCC will post on its website, YouTube channel and social media pages — encompasses students from the school’s campuses in Hilo, Kona and Honokaa, Moats said. It will include messages from administration, faculty and staff, and the student government president. It also will list the names of all graduates and have a “cultural component” from HCC’s Hawaiian studies program.

HCC, which doesn’t typically host a fall commencement ceremony, also is planning an in-person graduation in the fall, Moats said.

Kaulia said she’d be happy to participate in a later commencement ceremony.

“We definitely honor and celebrate our class of 2020,” HCC Chancellor Rachel Solemsaas said, calling the situation bittersweet. “They’ve worked so hard amid all this uncertainty and unforeseen challenges, but they made it through.”

Commencement has always been a time for grads and their families to celebrate.

“It’s sad, in the sense, we’re going to miss that culminating activity, but we’re still going to celebrate,” she said.

Plans to celebrate UH-Hilo’s 608 graduates also are underway.

“Like all other campuses, if and when in-person ceremonies do happen, we would invite any of these spring 2020 graduates to … come back to an in-person ceremony,” said Lisa Spain, chair of the UH-Hilo commencement committee.

While they’re hopeful to resume in-person ceremonies in the fall, Spain said the situation is ever-changing and the university will have to follow national, state and county requirements.

In the interim, Spain said the university is putting together the formal commencement program booklet with all the graduates’ names — the same booklet someone would receive when walking into an in-person ceremony — which will be mailed out to students.

Students could also submit photos, a short video or a written message to be included in a video that will be shared on the UH-Hilo website by May 20.

Spain said the video also will include messages from Chancellor Bonnie Irwin, various deans and program directors, and congratulatory messages from faculty and staff.

“I think there’s been this sense of really trying to pull together given the circumstances,” she said. “That’s why we really saw a lot of the staff and faculty add messages to their students. It’s almost a little more personal, in some ways. At a regular ceremony, you wouldn’t always get that.”

But the alternatives won’t replace a regular ceremony by any means, and Spain said there are mixed feelings among students about the changes to commencement.

“There’s definitely disappointment … but I think there’s also (the feeling that) this isn’t just us. We’re all in the same situation.”

UH-Hilo’s virtual commencement can be found online at hilo.hawaii.edu/commencement/spring2020, and HCC’s virtual commencement can be found at hawaii.hawaii.edu/graduation2020.

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UH graduates, their families and friends are encouraged to use #UHOhana when posting graduate images and videos on social media.

Email Stephanie Salmons at ssalmons@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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