Na Puka Kula: Hawaiian Immersion Graduates


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She did well in math and science and found the transition to college smooth not just academically, but socially as well. It’s not in spite of the fact that Hiraishi attended an immersion school that she succeeded, but because of it. She had a strong set of values when she graduated: Of “‘ohana, collectiveness, the idea of this reciprocal relationship between the person and the land and other people. That was something we all really knew through the lessons, in the chants, in the hula and everything—it was something that was ingrained in us. There were a lot of Hawaiians in college trying to find their identity as a Hawaiian, but I was very sure in my Hawaiian identity.” She admits that just like every other college student, she still had moments of confusion, but at least in this one aspect, she was entirely confident.

She graduated with a journalism degree, never expecting to use her Hawaiian language skills again. She enrolled in a two-month, intensive Italian language program in Rome and took on a magazine internship while there. Following that, she wrote for the Hawaii Island Journal before it folded. Eventually, through a Nawahi connection, she landed a job that combined her language and career interests, as a reporter and writer for Ahai Olelo Ola, the Hawaiian language news segment on Hawaii News Now Sunrise, the job she held when we first talked to her.

“If you had asked me if this was the job I was going to have when I was in school, I wouldn’t have known that it would happen,” Hiraishi says. “It is a rare opportunity in this stage of the Hawaiian language movement that I can actually do what I like, in Hawaiian.”

As we went to press, Hiraishi accepted a position as a public information officer at the Hawaiian Home Lands Trust, where she won’t be literally broadcasting the Hawaiian language anymore, but still hopes to disseminate it in some capacity. She also continues to speak at immersion schools, encouraging students in the face of doubt in the English-speaking community. “I try to go out of my way to talk, to show them yes, you can do it, stick with it. The eldest in the family always have to take care of everyone. That’s how we felt in the beginning, the first classes.”

Hiraishi says many immersion graduates wonder if they would enroll their own kids, when they come along. For her: “Having been able to find a career that uses my language makes me more confident that, by the time I have kids, they’ll have more options as Hawaiian language speakers.” She plans on sending them, to give them a strong sense of Hawaiian identity and “better, more choices in the future. I hope.”


After graduating from Stanford, Holo Hoopai worked for two years in a Bay Area startup and went to Kyrgyzstan for the Peace Corps. He has now returned to Hilo.

photo: joshua fletcher

Holo Hoopai

Ke Kula O Nawahiokalaniopuu graduate, class of 2003

By ethnicity, Holo Hoopai, 26, is only a quarter Hawaiian, but it’s the side that he aligns himself with. It’s not surprising, given his immersion schooling, but there’s something else: “I’m more willing to identify with the culture that’s least represented, and in the world, it’s Hawaiian.” It’s like he’s defined himself as an underdog of sorts: in seventh grade, when a stranger of Hawaiian descent learned that he attended Nawahi, she asked, “What do you think you’re going to do in life?” He replied: “I’m going to college.” “No, no, do you think you’ll be able to make it?”

He did go to college, and even then, there’s a sense of “him” versus “them,” the poor kid from Hilo attending Stanford among entitled Bimmer- and Porsche-driving classmates.

Hoopai had his own doubts about the relevance of his education throughout his schooling, but, in retrospect, “I’ve accomplished what I wanted to accomplish.” He has a bachelor’s degree in American history from Stanford, two years in a Bay Area startup, and a year-and-a-half Peace Corps stint in Kyrgyzstan, the latter borne out of a sense of adventure and his “passion for the underrepresented, the thing that needs maybe a little bit more help.”

In Kyrgyzstan, he found a situation similar to Hawaii. Kyrgyzstan was an occupied country under the Soviet Union and took the Russian language just as Hawaii took English, leaving Kyrgyz to languish like Hawaiian. Still, according to Hoopai, while the majority of people don’t speak Kyrgyz, the news is broadcasted in both languages. “The same newscasters speak Russian and Kyrgyz, it’s normal,” he says. “That should be the goal of Hawaiian immersion and language programs—to normalize the language in society, to make it a part of the status quo, to make people in our state not feel weird when they hear Hawaiian, to make them feel, ‘Oh, of course, why wouldn’t you.’”

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Honolulu Magazine November 2018
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