Confidence, culture help teen with school transition

Damien's very own Kehaulani Smith was recently featured in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser.  

Story courtesy of the Honolulu Star-Advertiser


By Michael Tsai

November 21, 2017

Updated November 21, 2017 12:05am


From kindergarten though grade eight, much of what Kehaulani “Kai” Smith understood of the world came through the filter of her immediate family and her only slightly extended family at Ke Kula ‘o Samuel M. Kamakau Laboratory Public Charter School.

Smith was part of what was at the time the Hawaiian immersion school’s largest ever class of eight students. They studied standard subjects like math and science and history but also matters of Native Hawaiian culture and identity.

All classes were, of course, conducted in Hawaiian. Once a week, the students shuttered the classrooms for hands-on educational experiences in the school mala and in Haiku-area loi.

It was a shock to the system, then, when Smith transferred to Damien Memorial School in the ninth grade, joining a diverse group of 144 other students as the incoming freshman class at a school that had only recently opened its doors to female students.

“I was terrified,” Smith admits. “I didn’t want to leave my old school and that community. I hadn’t had a day without them since I was in kindergarten.”

But Smith also understood the value of the scholarship that allowed her to attend the new school, and the sacrifices her family had to make to provide her this opportunity. When Smith’s mother moved to the Big Island to take a job, Smith’s grandmother stepped in to take care of her so she wouldn’t have to leave Damien.

Smith said she struggled at first to adapt to the more Western structure and protocols of her new school — “I had to learn how to take notes,” she said — and to receiving instruction in English. Like other girls in her class, she also had to find ways to cope in a male-dominated environment in transition.

“There were still two classes of all boys, and some of them were still against the idea of girls being at the school,” she said. “We’d always hear, ‘For the boys.’ It was sort of a motto.”

Yet Smith had everything she needed to persevere and succeed: a strong sense of cultural identity grounded in her fluency in Hawaiian and her understanding of traditional Hawaiian cultural practices, and a confidence in her own capabilities honed through her participation in middle-school football and years of competitive paddling.

Smith and her female cohorts also had the support of the school, which has embraced opportunities to foster female empowerment, even consulting a Latin scholar to find a gender-neutral way to interpret the school’s motto, Viriliter Age, formerly understood as “act manfully” and now more inclusively taught as “act courageously.”

Under the direction of deans Daniela Checinski and Elle Zieser, the school has also developed a Women in Leadership program, which pairs students with successful female mentors.

Smith was selected for the program and was paired with Maya Soetoro-Ng, faculty specialist and director of community outreach and global learning at the University of Hawaii’s Spark M. Matsunaga Institute for Peace & Conflict Resolution, and half sister of former President Barack Obama.

“She’s so peaceful and calm and nice, and that really resonated with me,” Smith said of her mentor. “She’s very giving, and that’s what I aspire to be.”

Last year Smith won the Miss Teen Hawaii pageant, but it will likely be her last pageant title. While she said the experience helped her become a better communicator, and she appreciated the volunteer opportunities she was given, she’s concluded that modeling and pageants “are nice but not my thing.”

Instead, Smith said she wants to focus on pursuing Hawaiian studies and education in college in hopes of more effectively combating negative stereotypes of Hawaiian people perpetuated in the broader community and, at times, within Hawaiian communities themselves.

“I really want to be able to make a strong impact on one person,” she said. “I’m not thinking about a thousand people. I want to focus on one person who can then put full focus and energy on building up one community and then one island.”