Highway Pālamanui graduates rush into their future on Saturday

PC: Tom Hasslinger / Big Island Now

Hawaii Community College – Balamani celebrated graduation on Saturday, May 14th in driving style, with some cars and truck beds decorated like the departing students.

The event was one of nine alumni at University of Hawaii HCC campuses across the state over the weekend, but the engine review at the campus party was fitting, as the Class of 2022 included eight auto mechanic graduates who were members of a one-of-a-kind pilot project with College, Hawaii P-20 and Kealakehe High School.

Their start on Saturday morning marked the first-ever class of Kona auto mechanics graduates.

“I’ve dreamed of this day for three years,” Reynette “Kaali” Halimau Kahn, principal of Pālamanui, told the motoring students before they took their diplomas and flipped their tassels. “Three years and you kids are here.”

The students began taking dual credit auto mechanics lessons three years ago when they were juniors at Kealakehe High School. By the time they graduated from Kealakehe last year, they had already completed half of their associate’s degree in auto mechanics from HCC.

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While double credit is common, the pilot program is unique in that it is a vocational and technical education and leads students to an associate’s degree. Last year, they completed their degrees through work-based learning at auto shops in the Kona area as part of the programme.

Auto grads pose for photos next to their cars on Saturday at the Pālamanui campus.
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“It feels good, finally, to finish what we started three years ago,” Chase Fernandez, 18, an auto grad said after the ceremony.

Fernandez said he never imagined graduating, he only focused on one day at a time as he went through all the work and training. But the big day has finally arrived, and Fernandez paid his respects to all the people who helped him and his teammates get to where they were standing on Saturday.

“Thank you all for your support in trying to help us through this program,” he said. “I know it wasn’t easy, just a lot of oohs to everyone who got us to this point.”

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The ceremony was held in the main campus parking lot. The cars walked in one line, slowly, as in a procession, to the front platform erected near the buildings. The graduate, dressed in a cap and gown, got out of the car and walked to the podium to receive his testimony from Chancellor Rachel Solemsas. Then they snapped photos with friends and family, got back in their cars, and drove away while spectators cheered from the seats set up in parking lots.

“It feels weird, but good at the same time,” graduate Ken Takeshi said of the ceremony, as well as the interest that comes with it.

His family helped direct him to the auto program, which he said he was happy to pursue. He’s a mechanic now, which he said he never thought it would be before he started his journey, and will continue to work as one.

“Thank you for being so supportive, you guys are amazing,” he said of his family.

“I never thought I’d be a mechanic,” he added. “I feel good now.”

The Automotive program was developed to meet the needs of students of Western Hawaii and the local auto industry. School officials stated that due to the distance from the Hilo campus of HCC, where the AMT program is located, few students enrolled on the western side of the island of Hawaii, leading to a shortage of qualified automotive technicians in the area.

The work-based learning companies that participated in the program were Kona Trans; Big Island Toyota; Kona muffler and auto repair; project; income; 808 Collison; Tony Honda’s island and off-road performance; And No Limits Auto Repair LLC.

Statewide, more than 4,000 students graduated from UH-HCC this weekend, including in Hilo.

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