Four-year-old Carter can be a distraction for his mom Puanani Akaka as he plays with his many toys while she studies in their Makiki apartment. However, he is also her motivator as she works on an accelerated online liberal arts degree offered by the University of Hawaiʻi Community Colleges.

Akaka manages to do this while also holding down a full-time job as an employment specialist with Catholic Charities.

Akaka says, “I hope to finish successfully with good grades and then also to show my son that it’s possible to work and do all these other things as well.”

Chantel Kualapai is a student in the program’s first cohort with Akaka. She was working three jobs when she saw a television ad for the program last year.

Chantel Kualapai

“At that point, I was thinking about going back and getting my degree because I’d been laid off a few times,” Kualapai says. “I was trying to get jobs where I know I can do it, but they just couldn’t put me in the programs or put me in the positions because I didn’t have a degree.”

Kualapai shares her home in ʻEwa with nine family members. She appreciates the flexibility of the online program, consisting of five-week courses done one at a time over two-and-a-half years.

“It helps me not have to give up more time to go to campus, sit in a class, and then traffic and (find) parking,” Kualapai says. “That just takes up way too much time, so I can devote more to my studies and less on traveling to and from campus.”

Exceeding expectations

Interest in the program has far exceeded expectations since it launched in January 2019. There were almost 400 applicants for 40 spaces in the first cohort, so the group was expanded to make room for 55 students. Students completing the program will earn an associate in arts degree from Leeward Community College in December 2021.

Registration for the second cohort of the UH accelerated online AA degree program, to begin in spring 2020, is open now on the UH Community Colleges website, with only 75 spots available.

“People who have an associates degree are more likely to be able to be employed, even in bad economic times, their earnings are higher, health is better, thereʻs more civic engagement,” says UH Community Colleges Associate Vice President Tammi Oyadomari-Chun. “There are lots of other reasons to have a degree besides just what it allows in terms of economic opportunities.”

Those in the program will attest to its worth. Kualapai says it has been life-changing, “I’ll have a degree at the end of this program that I probably wouldn’t have.”

Akaka says, “I feel that I just want it so badly, so staying motivated and determined is really what pushes me and looking at my son knowing that once I can get a degree, I can move forward and then I can probably get better pay and that will help us financially.”

Apply for the UH accelerated online AA degree.

—By Kelli Trifonovitch