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(Photo courtesy: Kaila Kaʻawaloa)

As Kaila Kaʻawaloa prepares to walk across the Stan Sheriff Center stage to accept her bachelor’s degree in biology from the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa this spring, her heart swells with pride. What adds to this achievement is how she conquered obstacles along her journey, transforming her graduation into a story of resilience and triumph.

person in a dress standing on a road
(Photo courtesy: Kaila Kaʻawaloa)

Kaʻawaloa attended Leeward Community College after graduating from Kapolei High School. While going to school full-time, she also worked full-time at the Hawaiʻi State Legislature for then-State Rep. and current State Sen. Jarrett Keohokalole as a committee clerk and policy coordinator, with a goal of earning enough money to continue paying for school.

“I think the one thing that I would like people to know is that we all are going to struggle, and we’re all gonna have trials and tribulations, but it’s how we interpret the situation to move forward and how we can do better and take it as a lesson rather than your losses,” Kaʻawaloa said.

Kaʻawaloa spent her childhood in Puna on Hawaiʻi Island with her parents and sister. They all moved to Oʻahu when she was 13 because her father had a better job opportunity. She said it was a struggle for a couple of years because of the family’s low income. However, things got better after her mother was able to secure a job.

Check out more stories of our UH spring graduates

“It was a tough ride,” Kaʻawaloa said. “We definitely really enjoyed those moments because it brought us closer as a family, and we all wanted to take care of each other. My parents had to sacrifice most of their time working, doing overtime, just to make sure our family was ok.”

Pursuit into medicine

person sitting on rocks by the ocean
(Photo courtesy: Kaila Kaʻawaloa)

Kaʻawaloa transferred from Leeward CC to Kapiʻolani CC and graduated with her degree in biological sciences in 2021, before transitioning to UH Mānoa in 2022. She said she liked the community college atmosphere because it was a more intimate learning environment, lessening the pressure of university-size classes.

While at UH Mānoa, Kaʻawaloa was able to secure scholarships and grants to further assist with paying for school. This allowed her to take a break from work and focus more on completing her bachelor’s degree.

Kaʻawaloa intends to take the Medical College Admission Test in the fall before applying to medical school the following year. Her dream is to attend the John A. Burns School of Medicine (JABSOM). Kaʻawaloa was exposed to JABSOM not only through her position at the Hawaiʻi State Legislature, but also via a visit with retired Professor Kalani Brady and an orientation with the ʻImi Hoʻōla program.

“I want to help my community. Me, being a Native Hawaiian woman: ‘What else can I bring to the table to help, not only our community, but our entire state?’” Kaʻawaloa asked of herself. “I think having more Native Hawaiian women within medicine would definitely be a really good thing for Hawaiʻi.”

Her goal is to help her community through Lāʻau lapaʻau (traditional Native Hawaiian medicine).

“Insurance is very expensive. Medications have a lot of side effects that we won’t know long term,” Kaʻawaloa said. “I wanted to add this ‘farm-acy’ mechanism to our communities to give everyone that option to not only want to use prescription medicine, but also want to try lāʻau lapaʻau to cure whatever illness, sickness and cold. But also that mechanism could connect to our agricultural side where we can have our patients go down to those ‘farm-acies,’ pick up their natural medicine prescription.”

All her combined life experiences have given her a strong desire to give back to her community.

“I was born with this intuition to help anybody and everybody,” Kaʻawaloa said. “From a family perspective, I take care of my family—whatever they need, I’m there. Working for the state, it gives you greater power because you have connections. You’re able to communicate with other divisions to help our constituents, to help out other divisions—working in the state gave me that greater power to help out.”

—By Marc Arakaki

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