Kohlby Soong, a KCC alumnus, has returned to campus to become the caretaker for the Māla Māunuunu after working in the garden as a student. (Photo by Cameron Enomoto)

By Cameron Enomoto | Staff Writer

While weeding, planting, and watering a garden may seem like a burden to some, KCC alumnus Kohlby Soong genuinely enjoys his responsibilities. He serves as the facilitator for Māla Māunuunu, the campus garden, and takes care of the land section behind the Mānele and Manono buildings on campus. During his time as a student at KCC beginning in 2018, Soong worked at the Māla for approximately three years in a grant-funded position. Due to the position being temporary, there was a period of time when the Māla was not properly tended to, and it fell into a state of disrepair.

By the time I finished my undergraduate degree at UH Hilo, there was another grant supporting the Māla that had a vacant position,” Soong said. “I was interested in coming back to continue the work that has been done over the years to support the young life of plants that we’ve invested energy in. This ensures that what we’ve planted in the past isn’t just for that action.”

The Māla is home to a number of plant species, both introduced and native. (Photo by Cameron Enomoto)

Born and raised on Oʻahu in Maunalua, Soong attended Kaiser High School and graduated in 2016. Soon after, his parents gave him the ultimatum of either attending college or paying bills.

“I think KCC was my only choice coming out of high school,” said Soong. “I wasn’t really looking for anywhere out of state, plus it was the cheaper option. KCC was the next part of the route after Kaiser, not as a backup plan, but it’s a good place for those who don’t know what they want to do.”

Soong completed his Associate of Arts in Hawaiian Studies at KCC and went on to UH Hilo to complete his Bachelor of Science in Environmental Science. Reflecting on his journey at KCC, Soong credits his success to the undeniable sense of community that KCC resonates in addition to the resources and support provided by programs for Native Hawaiian students.

It was inspiring to see the resources being provided for Hawaiian students at the time as well as seeing the positive impact of the kaiāulu [community],” he said. “When humans support humans in a genuine way there’s a really positive experience that comes out of it. When you come to college and meet people for the first time or for the first few times, there’s a genuine feeling that we have here at this campus and it’s really nice to see that people want to lift up the lāhui [collective] and that people are innately kind humans.”

As a student, Soong did not picture his career being what it is today.

I didn’t know what I had envisioned for myself in the first place as someone who lives day to day,” he said. “This wasn’t the goal, but it just fell in my lap and I think it was a great opportunity that came knocking on my door.”

Currently, the Māla is home to Polynesian-introduced flora, such as kukui, niu (coconut), ʻulu, turmeric, and sugarcane. Additionally, there are native plants in the Māla that include ʻilima, ʻuhaloa, and ʻōhiʻa. However, according to Soong, around 30% of the land section is unmanaged and dominated by invasive species like haole koa, kiawe, and bush grass.

I’m looking forward to dwindling that non-native number down and focusing on native succession,” Soong said. “I want to utilize all the land that we have available in this space and bring forth abundance in the Māla. It’s a really low-stress job, and just being out in the ‘āina is a relief. We draw energy from the Earth, and it makes me feel positive doing what I do.”

Soong encourages students who are interested in learning more about the Māla to attend the Mālama Māunuunu workdays on Oct. 27 and Dec. 1 from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.

“There are a bunch of different tasks to do every day,” Soong said. “It helps to keep the job interesting. As someone who lives day to day, it’s important to see that these plants grow and fully mature. I wasn’t expecting to come back here [KCC] but everything happened organically, and I’m very blessed to have this job.”