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Amber Lehano has focused her life’s work on helping local keiki overcome a disability she has faced herself. However, the spring 2024 University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa College of Education graduate says the keiki she has taught actually have inspired her to better her life.

Lehano is deaf and deals with significant hearing loss. She was raised in Central Oʻahu, moving between Mililani and Wahiawā, and faced hardships and difficulties growing up.

“I missed out on a lot of conversations, misunderstanding jokes and instructions,” Lehano said. “In school, I was labeled as that ‘problem child.’ I got into fights because I was frustrated all the time and I didn’t understand why. I was scared to ask the teacher and even my parents for help or to repeat themselves because the same reply I got was, ‘I’m not repeating myself. Next time listen.’”

Conquering challenges leads to groundbreaking firsts

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Part of her way of coping was turning to athletics. While attending Mililani High School, Lehano became the school’s first female football player as a lineman. She then moved to Wahiawā, transferred to Leilehua and became the first female football player there as a defensive guard and tackle, and the first female wrestler. Lehano graduated in 1998 and became a semi-pro women’s football athlete.

For several years after playing professionally, she didn’t really have much guidance or desire of what she wanted to do with her life.

“It was just job after job. I was a wrestling coach and took care of my son, nieces, nephews and my parents,” Lehano said.

Higher ed key to success

In 2015, Lehano made the decision to pursue higher education and attended Kapiʻolani Community College. After five years, she earned her associate’s degree in deaf education and wanted to work with deaf children to help them overcome the challenges she faced.

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Lehano earned a position as an educational assistant at the Hawaiʻi School for the Deaf and the Blind, working in the elementary special education (SPED) class. She worked and continues to work with deaf plus children, “deaf plus” means they also have other disabilities such as autism, CHARGE syndrome (a rare genetic disorder) and blindness.

“Now being able to provide these students with a way to express and communicate their thoughts and emotions makes me feel a sense of accomplishment and comfort to know that what I went through won’t happen to them,” Lehano said.

It was because of helping the keiki and the inconsistency of available SPED teachers that inspired her to continue her higher education journey. Lehano discovered that the UH Mānoa College of Education was creating a new cohort that was specific to severe disabilities and autism, which she jumped at the opportunity to apply.

“It shouldn’t matter of your age or disability,” Lehano said. “If you have a desire to pursue something, just go for it.”

Commencement student marshal honor

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Two years in the program, Lehano thrived, eventually being selected as the college’s student marshal for commencement. Student marshals are selected by their school or college’s dean—based on leadership, scholarship and service—to represent and lead their graduating class in the commencement ceremony.

“The College of Education is so honored to have Amber Lehano as the commencement student marshal,” said Dean Nathan Murata. “As a deaf education major, her dedication, passion and determination to excel are evident as she has embarked on an education pathway. Amber is an excellent role model and mentor and the epitome of what perseverance and hard work can do. We are very proud to call her an alum and know that she will achieve great success as she continues to impact the lives of her students.”

“Yes it’s scary, nerve wracking, it may seem like endless, non-stop work, but in the end it turns into the ‘aha’ moment and the feeling of relief that we just did that!” Lehano said.

Check out more stories of our UH spring graduates

Lehano currently resides in Kaimukī with her wife, and works at the Hawaiʻi School for the Deaf and the Blind as a temporary assigned teacher to three haumāna (students). She hopes to continue working at the school for years to come.

“I was able to help these students learn how to communicate their needs and wants,” Lehano said. “They are now able to have a complete conversation expressing their feelings and are able to tell me how their day is going. That is the biggest reward for me to see these students feel accepted and safe. I’m speechless on how to explain this feeling.”

—By Marc Arakaki

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