student at graduation
Keren Motonaga

Keren Motonaga of Hawaiʻi Island endured a long journey to become the first person in her family to receive a four-year college degree. Ten years after she started attending the University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo, the 28 year old graduated in December 2018 with a bachelor of arts in Japanese studies and a minor in linguistics.

Born and raised on Hawaiʻi Island, Motonaga graduated from Kamehameha Schools Hawaiʻi in 2008 and was initially on track to graduate from UH Hilo in five years, while making the most of the opportunities available. She participated in a study abroad program, spending time in South Korea and a year in Japan. She took part in a national student exchange going to school for a semester at the University of Montana. Then came a series of life challenges that knocked her off track.

“The semester I was supposed to graduate, there was a car accident with me and my mom,” said Motonaga. “Also, there was a period of homelessness and unhealthy personal relationships that got in the way of my schooling.”

While out of school, Motonaga regretted not completing her college degree, knowing it was an unfinished part of her life.

“I felt like I wasn’t done, like I wouldn’t be happy with myself if I didn’t finish what I had started,” she said before making the decision to return and finish. “My family was my biggest motivation. No one has graduated in our family with a bachelor’s degree before, so it was a big milestone for me and for them.”

UH is targeting returning adults

UH is now actively targeting former students, like Motonaga, referred to as “returning adults” or “stopped out students,” to return and complete their post-secondary degree or certificate. According to the 2017 Hawaiʻi State Data Book, about 94,000, 25 year olds to 44 year olds in Hawaiʻi have some college credits but not a degree.

The Lumina Foundation awarded UH $400,000 in 2018 to support adults who want to earn college degrees, certificates and other professional credentials. The award has helped UH develop a system that supports adults returning to UH to finish degrees that includes personalized advising, credit for prior learning opportunities and expanded online learning options.

“For many ‘stopped out’ students, the top reasons for returning are personal—to achieve a goal that they set for themselves or to make their families proud. We also know that completing a certificate or degree increases earnings, job security and job opportunities,” said Tammi Chun, Office of the Vice President for Community Colleges. ”Studies show that a person with an associate degree earns about $500,000 more over their lifetime compared to a high school graduate and those lifetime earnings jump to $1 million more for someone with a bachelor’s degree. Re-engaging these former students is also critical in reaching the state’s educational goal of 55 percent of working age adults holding a two- or four-year college degree by the 2025.”

Balancing “real life” with academics

lei and cards for graduation

While completing her degree, Motonaga worked at two restaurants in Hilo while balancing her academics. She credits encouragement from her family, friends and church for her success and says her professors really played a big part in helping her graduate.

“They were very understanding that I was a returning adult and they want their students to succeed,” said Motonaga. “I felt that this semester and appreciate them a lot.”

Motonaga is now searching for a job where she can utilize her degree. “It’s been very competitive trying to find a job without one, but now having job experience and education will help change my living situation.”