[Editor’s note: This story has been corrected. Please see below for more information.]

By Keahi Akina | Staff Writer 

Jeremy Yee took one last look at the dormitories at the Kamehameha Kapālama campus in March 2020. That morning the students were told that because of Covid-19 they all must leave the dorms earlier than the end of the school year and head home immediately. The Covid-19 pandemic had begun to take its toll on his education.

After coming to Kapiʻolani Community College in the fall of 2020, he was hoping it would be better but he found online classes to be frustrating and struggled to focus on his classes.

Then his college career changed when he received a call around November from Emma Kaʻahaʻaina, the facilitator of Kūloaʻa. She makes a point to call all Native Hawaiian students to invite them to apply for Kūloaʻa, a program here at KCC.

Yee is now a second-year member, and he and his cohort meet bi-weekly to discuss their classes and their goals. 

“The community I got through Kūloaʻa helped me keep updated on classes and stay motivated during the first pandemic year,” Yee said.

Kūloaʻa, which means “prosperous, well-supplied with needs,” is aptly named. The ʻiwi hilo, the core, according to the program is “the commitment to support Kapiʻolani Community College’s Native Hawaiian students who are pursuing a degree, especially in relationship to business and economics, and who are interested in entrepreneurship, sustainability, and community.” 

Part of that core is the cohort model. Students in the program are placed with other students from the same year, first or second, who will be taking the same courses as them. Through this, cohort members immediately have peers to connect with beyond the classroom and for the classroom. There are five freshman and five sophomores currently in the program. 

The program requires a specific class or classes to be taken in each semester, including The Science of Sleep (PHYL 160 and PHYL 160L), Plants in the Hawaiian Environment (BOT130 and BOT130L), Hawaiian Mythology (HWST 270), Creative Thinking (IS 161), Hawaii: Center of the Pacific (HWST 107), Introduction to Hawaiian Art (Art 189), Principles of Microeconomics (ECON 130) and Personal and Public Speech (SP 151). For many of the classes, only one is required of two options. All of the classes apply to an AA in Liberal Arts. The tuition for the required classes taken through the program are covered under the grant that funds Kūloa’a. 

Hailey Aina, a 20-year-old first-year student at KCC and a member of the program, was looking for a group of students who she could work with and form a community that she could rely upon. She found that in Kūloaʻa in August of 2021. 

“Being in Kūloaʻa gave me an opportunity to be held accountable by my peers and to hold them accountable,” said Aina, who mentioned that she meets with members of the program “two or three times a week” in addition to regular phone calls.

For the students in the program, the core of the program is Kaʻahaʻaina. Her responsibilities as facilitator are the coordination of presentations by indigenous business leaders and innovators, planning workshops and one-on-one academic coaching. One such workshop will be held on Monday, Oct. 6, when Mālia Kaʻaihue, the president of DTL will be presenting to Kūloaʻa. Mālia is the president of DTL, which calls itself a “Hawaiian strategy studio.”

For the students, Kaʻahaʻaina acts as mentor, personal coach and bridges the gap between that and friend by offering sincere support. 

“It all comes back to Emma,” said Maddy Espinas, 18, a second-year student with Kūloaʻa and KCC. “She reached out to me and has developed a mentoring relationship with me. I think of her as a big sister; she’s offered me a lot of guidance.” 

Espinas credits her organization and her success here at KCC partly to the program. Between the direct support from Kaʻahaʻaina and the community of her peers who are taking the same courses, she’s found that her time at KCC has been very productive. 

Students must have a 2.0 minimum GPA to apply. A student has to be Native Hawaiian and interested. Applications open again in November. For inquiries into Kūloaʻa, message Emma Kaʻahaʻaina’s email is eldk@hawaii.edu.

[Correction: The original story reported that Yee left the Kamehameha campus on the Big Island in March 2020. He was attending Kamehameha Kapālama in March 2020. Additionally, the original story reported that there is no GPA requirement to join. The GPA requirement is 2.0. “Mālia” was incorrectly reported as “Mālie”. The story has been corrected, and we regret the error.]