Graduation day is special for every college student. But for nontraditional students who enroll in college later in life and frequently have children, their often-complicated journeys to their diplomas makes graduation day especially meaningful.

Below we share the stories of three non-traditional Native Hawaiian students who, with the help of the OHA Higher Education Scholarships, graduated from college in May. OHA has provided $500,000 to UH to provide approximately 200 scholarships to Native Hawaiians over the next two years. The program is intended to support non-traditional students pursuing degrees in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.

Jessie Wallace

Jessie Wallace sees her children watching her.

The 31-year old single mother knew that her return to school wasn’t just about finding a better paying job to support her 10-year old son and six-year old daughter. It was about setting an example.

“I wanted to show my kids that they can go to college and do anything they want,” she said. “I want them to know that you don’t give up, you have to push through until you’re done.”

So she made sure that her children saw her studying in her room late at night. She made her son do his homework while she did hers. “If I gotta do it, so do you,” she would tell him.

Jessie Wallace alongside with her children. -Photo: Courtesy

Wallace had previously earned her associates in culinary and worked at Mama’s Fish House, near Pā‘ia. She decided she needed a new profession and enrolled at UH Maui College. She chose to study technology after hearing that there weren’t a lot of women in the industry. “I had no idea what I was getting myself into,” she said.

Being a single mother and working full-time while going to college was difficult. She saw many of the students who started at the same time as her graduate. The school work itself was challenging but rewarding. She did an internship with the Federal Aviation Administration and completed her seven-month long capstone project: building a lighted, dancing water show, like a mini-version of the fountains at the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas. After four years, Wallace graduated in May with her associate degree in electronics and computer engineering technology. Her degree will bolster her resume as she applies for a promotion.

The day before her graduation she wasn’t ready to think about pursuing her bachelor’s degree. She just wanted to appreciate what she’d accomplished. “When I walked out of my last class, I couldn’t believe I was finally done,” she said. “I was at the end of the tunnel. I did it! I praise God for carrying me through this journey.”

Nathan Nahina

Nathan Nahina thinks big. But big thinkers sometimes take a little longer to find their path in life.

A longtime sponsored skate boarder, Nahina‘s creativity and free spirit took him from job to job after graduating from Leilehua High School. He was admittedly “wild” in his younger days.

Nahina finally decided to buckle down and return to school. But still, his eight-year path through college wasn’t without some unexpected turns. He made a connection with his culture (“that wasn’t planned”) and about halfway through college, he became a father (“my son gave me a focus I never had before”). And in many ways, he began to see himself differently, especially next to many of his younger classmates. “Being older, college was a much different experience for me,” said Nahina, now 31. “I had some life under me, and I was taking school serious. I had something to prove.”

Nathan Nahina and his family. – Photo: Courtesy

College allowed Nahina to bring his big ideas to life. At UH, he met like-minded people who also wanted to bridge Hawaiian culture and technology. Having long wanted to make his own version of the popular game Flappy Birds, he was able to participate in a workshop that developed He Ao Hou: A New World, a Hawaiian language video game. He hooked up with Purple Mai‘a, a non-profi t that teaches coding and computer science to Hawai‘i’s youth. Through the program, he teaches at the Boys and Girls Club and at Ānuenue, a Hawaiian language immersion school in Pālolo.

In May, Nahina graduated from UH Mānoa with a bachelor’s in computer science. He’s already received an offer for a reliable job in his field that will bring him closer to his dream of owning a house for his family. But that’s not enough for Nahina. He wants to continue his work with Purple Mai‘a and plans to establish a business to foster Hawaiian culture-based media and technology.

In the week leading up to his graduation, Nahina had been too busy to properly square his emotions.

“This has been a really long road,” he said. “Graduation hasn’t hit me yet. I’m super stoked, but you know, I’ll probably cry.”

Dennis Ramos

In 2015, Dennis Ramos was 36 years old and unsure about future.

The 1997 Mililani High School alum entered the workforce before he even graduated. For years, he worked two jobs, as a truck driver during the day and in the restaurant industry at night. But a back injury was preventing him from sitting for extended periods and he could no longer shift his truck’s clutch, meaning his days as a driver were over.

“It was a shock for me,” Ramos said. “I had no idea how I was going to support my wife and stepdaughter. I was ready to give up.”

Dennis Ramos and his proud family. -Photo: Courtesy

Running out of options, he returned to school. A Pell Grant, a Kamehameha Schools scholarship and an OHA Higher Education Scholarship helped him pay for school. He slammed his schedule with 15 to 17 credits a semester, taking diffi cult and competitive science and medical classes. He went to summer school. “Once I told myself I was getting my degree, I was going to do whatever I possibly could to get it.”

In May – after just two years in school – Ramos graduated from KCC with an associate degree in medical assisting, a growing industry with job opportunities. He’s planning to attend UH West Oahu to earn his bachelor’s in health care administration and has already received job offers to work while he finishes his degree.

Grateful for all the assistance that got him to this point, his goal is now to give back. He served as a KCC tutor and mentor, and wants to eventually develop a clinic for keiki battling illness.

“This has been a real journey,” Ramos said. “But it’s encouraging, considering where I came from. Now I want to return the support every chance I get.”

The UH-OHA Higher Education Scholarship Program application period for the school year 2019-2020 begins on November 1. For more information about the program, contact Dr. Joshua Kaakua at (808)956-3252 or ohastem@hawaii.edu.