Alfred Gonzales (left) and Sheldon Tawata are counselors of the Kuilei Outreach Program that encourages high school students to make the smart decision of transitioning to college. (Photo by Juri Dagio)

By Juri Dagio | Staff Writer

[Editor’s note: A previous version of this story stated that former chancellor Louise Pagotto had assigned Sheldon Tawata the task of creating a program. He was asked by former chancellor, Dr. Leon Richards to create a program. We apologize for the error.]

Kuilei Outreach Program coordinator Sheldon Tawata, who was born and raised on O’ahu, had his fair share of bad high school experiences. Mathematics was a difficult subject for him to learn, and he had difficulty completing high school.

“I barely graduated from high school,” he said as he pointed to the diploma hanging in his office. “In fact, I don’t think I was supposed to finish.”

Despite the hardships he has to go through to get his high school diploma, which he earned from Roosevelt High School in Honolulu, he has obtained a few college degrees. He received his Bachelor of Arts in Psychology from University of Hawai’i at Mānoa and his master’s in Counseling from San Francisco State University in California.

With his unpleasant experience from high school and as a first-generation college student, Tawata shared his motivation for becoming a counselor at KCC.

“Through life experiences … not wanting people to follow my footsteps as far as the bad thing goes, I felt this is my calling,” he said.

Tawata had been tasked by former chancellor, Dr. Leon Richards, with creating a program that would reach out to elementary, intermediate, and high school students who are looking to go to college and help them along the way. Five years ago, former KCC student life advisor Alfred Gonzales, a native of ‘Ewa Beach on O’ahu, joined him in the program.

Gonzales shared a similar motivation as to why he applied to work for the Kuilei Outreach Program. He realized that helping others brings him joy after recalling his experience of working as a student orientation leader while he was a student at UH Mānoa.

“My fun times in college was when I was helping people out,” he said.

Gonzales, who has been in the program for five years, and Tawata, a counselor since 2001, are both actively involved in outreach as well as conducting orientations in middle and high schools across Oahu.

“I go to Wai‘anae High School, which is far. But I try to go every year because it’s far,” Tawata said. “I want to introduce families to say, did you know that there is a campus that exists in Honolulu, so for them to say, ‘I don’t know, tell me more’ is a win for me. It’s just expanding of the family and their child’s horizon on what’s possible after high school.”

Similarly, Gonzales shares his experience reaching out to high school students living in distant locations. He is a firm believer in the power of awareness and opportunity.

“I was contacted by Waialua High [and Intermediate] School, all the way in North Shore. I had to drive to the country and presented to their students,” Gonzales said. “I think, we got two students who came to KCC, interested in Culinary. … If I’m able to help them become more aware of their strengths and values, if I’m able to do that, that’s a bonus.”

Moreover, they provide campus tours to students from different elementary, intermediate, and high schools. When asked whether they think the program is effective, Gonzales and Tawata expressed a firm belief that the program is effectual.

“Before the pandemic, we invited an entire 7th grade class to visit; there were 340 of them. It was a lot of fun, the kids were engaged,” Tawata said. “Four or five years later, new students came, and someone asked them what made them choose KCC … [and] they said it’s because of the campus tour they went on in middle school.”

Both counselors are committed to encouraging not only young students to consider college as an option, but also to inspire current college students to reach their full potential regardless of where they are from.

“Reflect on your story, that you’ve done to this point, and start thinking what your new chapter is going to be like, and see where it goes,” Tawata said. “Sticking true to your values and sticking true to your beliefs, and then be willing to put in the effort; if it’s something that you really want, you really have to work for it.”