Na Puka Kula: Hawaiian Immersion Graduates

Some of the first graduates of the Hawaiian immersion schools have been out on their own in the adult world for a few years now. We caught up with four of them for their reflections on the schools, the language and their futures.


As part of the Hawaiian culture program at Nawahiokalaniopuu, students grow taro and sweet potatoes. Photo: Joshua Fletcher



“Hawaiian, it was like a flame that went out, then psshw,”  Kuuwehi Hiraishi makes a sound of a gas burner igniting, “it came back.” She’s referring to her own Hawaiian language proficiency after returning to the Islands from the Mainland, going from hardly speaking the language to using it regularly in her work. But she might as well have been speaking about the language as a whole. In 1984, Hawaiian was on the brink of extinction, with about 2,000 speakers, mostly elderly; fewer than 50 of the speakers were 18 years or younger.


To turn this around, educators launched Hawaiian immersion schools, where students are taught all subjects in Hawaiian. From the first immersion elementary school in 1987, the program has grown to 20 campuses statewide. Today, there are more than 450 graduates, Hiraishi included, who have been out in the real world long enough to have some distance from the experience. How has it influenced their lives since? Would they send their own children?


After graduating, Kuuwehi Hiraishi worked as a Hawaiian language news reporter and is now with the Hawaiian Home Lands Trust. Photo: Elyse Butler and Matt Mallams



Kuuwehi Hiraishi

Graduate of Ke Kula O Nawahiokalaniopuu in Keaau, Hawaii Island, class of 2001

Kuuwehi Hiraishi, 28, was one of 12 in the third graduating class of Nawahi. “Your parents always live vicariously through you,” she says, on why they enrolled her. “They were college students in the ’70s, [during the] Hawaiian Renaissance, trying to find themselves as Hawaiians. They saw this as a great opportunity to instill that in me, without me having any say in it,” she laughs.


With the pressure of being the oldest (her two younger sisters would subsequently attend Nawahi) and a self-proclaimed nerd, she worried that her education would not prepare her for a successful career. She watched as classmates pulled out, they and their parents unwilling to take a risk on an educational experiment, one that didn’t even have certified teachers at the time. Think of how hard it is to find a good math or chemistry teacher; then think of how hard it is to find one fluent in Hawaiian. “The administrators who started the movement were so passionate and they knew that it would work,” Hiraishi says. “But when you’re in it at the time, you’re not sure if all the worries and all the doubts that you hear in the community are actually going to play out.”


When she got to Seattle University, though, she found “the transition wasn’t hard at all, other than silly little things like calling teachers kumu. I was amazed it was easier in ways. When I took language in college, I felt like I could easily catch on. Especially Japanese. I was just able to think a different way easier.” Though English was her first language, when she was giving oral presentations in Japanese, unexpectedly, Hawaiian would fill in the gaps.


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.’”


His two-year assignment ended early after a violent revolution had him fearing for his life. Kyrgyzstan was a turning point. He “plopped back down” in Hilo, where he once thought he’d never return. The comfort and familiarity of home which drove him away in his younger years was now the draw. “I came to appreciate what I want to do in my life, where I want to spend my life—in this state, where I have my strongest sense of community and place.”


Now back in Hawaii, he’s in his second year of a three-year Hawaiian language and literature master’s program at UH Hilo. He’s also teaching at his high school alma mater. His wanderlust is, at the moment, quenched. “I’ve had my share of experiences,” he says. If he were to leave again, it would be for more education—law school, perhaps—so that he can return and contribute to the “brain gain in Hawaii.”


With nine years of life experience between now and his immersion school days, he sees Nawahi as one of many influences on his life, essential but not definitive. If, or when, he has children, he’s unsure if he’ll send them to immersion school. “Since I do speak Hawaiian, I can give that to my kids on my own time.”


Hawaiian was Kapulani Conradt’s first language. After graduating from BYU Hawaii, she now teaches kindergarten at her alma mater. Photo: Joshua Fletcher



Kapulani Conradt

Graduate of Ke Kula O Ehunuikaimalino in Konawaena, Hawaii Island, class of 2007

There were three graduates in the first class of Ehunuikaimalino, though Kapulani Conradt, 22, remembers starting with 20 to 30 classmates. Some left to play sports at bigger public schools, while others succumbed to doubts about the immersion program’s utility. “I was going to prove them wrong,” she says.


After graduation, Conradt went to Utah Valley University for three semesters before returning home to major in Hawaiian Studies at Brigham Young University–Hawaii. The school, with its honor and dress codes, felt familiar and supportive, but the major maybe too familiar. “I thought it was a stereotype—Hawaiian immersion kids going on to do Hawaiian studies to be Hawaiian language teachers. I didn’t want that at first. But, while I was away, it didn’t feel right to do anything else.”


Hawaiian was Conradt’s first language—she started in Punana Leo, the Hawaiian language preschools that touched off the Hawaiian language immersion schools. She had difficulty learning English in high school (after fifth grade, students receive formal English instruction), and didn’t feel prepared for college. “It was hard,” she says. “I wasn’t used to the type of work that we had to do [at UVU], how much reading that we had to do, the competition. The other students had a lot more education, I guess.”


Still, she wouldn’t hesitate to send her children to a Hawaiian language immersion school, in addition to the teaching she would provide at home, because she feels “it’s easier, it’s not as intimidating. It’s like a family,” she says.


Now, she teaches kindergarten back at Ehunuikaimalino. There are many more opportunities for the students than when she attended, such as online classes, but, more important, there’s a stronger sense of stability now that the school has a track record. She plans to pursue a teaching license, and then hopes to attend law school to eventually deal with “something in Hawaiian issues, land rights, land use.”


Leahi Hall, another Stanford graduate, is now the director of admissions at St. Francis High School in Mountain View, Calif. Photo: Memoire Studio Photography



Leahi Hall

Graduate of Ke Kula Kaiapuni O Kekaulike in Pukalani, Maui, class of 2001

Leahi Hall, 28, part of Kula Kaiapuni O Kekaulike’s lead class of six, points out that the early Hawaiian language immersion schools were one of the first immersion schools in the United States, period. “I think all the work that our parents put into our education, to our program, when it wasn’t that popular, is so remarkable and that’s really why we succeeded,” Hall says. “It instills in you that same work ethic for things that are important to you, your family, the land and the culture.”


Of the four subjects we spoke to, Hall alone, if she ever doubted the program, kept it to herself. But then, her connections run a bit deeper than the average graduate’s. Her parents were instrumental in developing Kekaulike’s immersion program. Her mother, Dana Hall, of Hawaiian descent, is an activist and former chair of the Maui County Burial Council; her father, Isaac Hall, a land use lawyer recognized by the Sierra Club for arguing more cases on behalf of the environment than any other lawyer in the state. Leahi Hall is their only child.


After high school, Hall studied at Stanford as a cultural and social anthropology major and played varsity volleyball. Now, she’s the director of admissions at St. Francis High School in Mountain View, California, where she coaches volleyball. Hall doesn’t plan on moving back, but she’s acutely aware of how her kaiapuni (immersion) experience has shaped her. “I think that we try to be Hawaiian the best we can in this current day,” she says. “[Kaiapuni] instills in you a foundation that never goes away. That’s the block on which I stand to this day, no matter where I am, whether or not I use the language every day. That’s the core in me.”