Graduate Kynan Kawai: How struggling through college 3,000 miles from home helped him find his cultural identity

Kynan Kawai

By Carly Banks
NAU Communications

When Kynan Kawai left his home and family to pursue his bachelor’s of science degree in hotel and restaurant management, he didn’t expect to find his cultural identity at Northern Arizona University, nearly 3,000 miles away.

He grew up on the Big Island of Hawai’i in the small town of Kohala—a population of less than 7,000. His parents were both native Hawaiian and struggled to keep jobs to provide for their three boys. When he was of age, Kawai attended public school. Not much had changed since his parents attended the elementary school 25 years prior—the teachers were the same, the books were tattered and torn, the paint peeling. It was underfunded and falling apart and had been for some time. Kawai is convinced that had he not been accepted into a private school after his eighth-grade year, he would not be where he is today.

Kamehameha School Hawai’i opened a lot of doors for him, including the possibility of going to college—something he hadn’t really considered. He liked the idea of following in his brother’s footsteps by attending a university in Oregon, but instead decided to join Kiana Garcia, one of his close friends, in her plans to attend NAU. Without any knowledge of what he was getting into—not of the school, not of the town, not of the snow and not of life on his own—he embarked on the 10-plus hour journey across the Pacific.

He was in for a rude awakening.

Kynan's first snow.
Kynan’s first snow

Turns out, supporting one’s self through college is tougher than he thought. Despite Kawai and his parents taking out loans, he was forced to work two, sometimes three jobs throughout his schooling. Making rent each month was a struggle, and whether or not he’d have enough money to purchase groceries and school supplies was uncertain.

“I had a hard time with many of my classes during my second year at NAU,” Kawai said. “I was going through personal development, finding myself, family issues and being homesick—all of which reflected poorly in my coursework.”

Instead of focusing on educational development and fighting the inevitable, he decided to take an extra year to focus on learning more about himself. He joined NAU’s HAPA Hawaiian Club, a student organization dedicated to helping the students of Hawaii transition into college.

“The NAU HAPA Hawaiian club aims to bring students together not just from Hawaii but all those who identify as Asian and Pacific Islander to create a strong ‘ohana away from home,” said Emilly Borthwick-Wong, assistant director of the Office of Inclusion and advisor of the HAPA Hawaiian Club. “The social, community service and cultural based events and activities the club members participate in aim to build a stronger community. By giving students like Kynan these opportunities, our club members are able to spread the aloha spirit and the Hawaiian culture around Northern Arizona University and the Flagstaff community.”

2017 HAPA Luau
Kynan poses with fellow club members at the 2017 HAPA Luau

Kawai found the community and motivation he needed to succeed in school. Not only did he educate himself about what it means to be Hawaiian, but also helped other HAPA club members and NAU students find their identity.

“I have been able to learn from great leaders in the club,” he said. “They taught me how to lead by example, and now I can be somewhat of a role model to new students every year.”

After graduation, Kawai, who currently works as a banquet captain at the High Country Conference Center, hopes to move up to a management position.

“NAU has taught me that anything is possible, as long as you reach out to your resources.”

Reach and you may just find your sense of ‘ohana or family.


NAU Communications