Back to class

PUHI — Just one year of college can be life-changing. Research shows students who attend a year of college will live longer, earn more money and are less likely to be unemployed.

With such a huge gap in the quality of life between high school graduates and those who attend one year of college, a Big Island retiree was inspired to establish a unique scholarship designed to redirect non-college bound students into the classroom.

The Wai‘ale‘ale Project offers financial help and other support to eliminate barriers that would prevent a student from achieving academic success.

Unlike other scholarships, students who receive support through the Wai‘ale‘ale Project don’t have to follow rigid guidelines. They just have to commit to attending one year of college.

“We tried to eliminate all the restrictions,” said Jim Lally, the retiree who spearheaded the project. “We don’t care about anything — your sex, age, ethnicity. We just want to get you to school.”

Students are free to tailor their workload and classes around their schedule, while the scholarship pays 100 percent of tuition, the cost of books and fees.

In return, students are asked to demonstrate satisfactory academic progress (a minimu 2.0 GPA and completion of 67 percent of attempted credits) and communicate to the Wai‘ale‘ale staff.

“Our priority is to get students who are non-college bound, get them there to experience college, pursue a degree and take a class of interest,” said Kimo Perry, coordinator of the Wai‘ale‘ale Project.

Once students are enrolled in the program, they will continue to receive academic and financial support until they achieve an Associates of Art degree, “even if it takes three, four,  five years,” Perry said. If a person goes to a 13th year of school, that student is 28 percent less likely to be unemployed at any point in the economic cycle, will earn 30 percent more during their lifetime and live seven years longer, according to Lally’s research.

“That told me it is not acceptable for anyone to be denied access to higher education,” Lally said. “I say, ‘Give us one year, and the worst thing to happen to you is that you make 30 percent more money, you live seven years longer and it’s all paid for.’”

The program started in 2010, and currently supports more than 100 students in their first and second years at Kaua‘i Community College. About 100 students are slated to enter the program in the 2012–2013 school year, which would account for 10 percent of KCC’s enrollment.

Lisa Rapozo was part of the first group of students admitted to the program.

“It’s been 20 years for me out of high school,” Rapozo said. “I talked about (going to college) all the time, and a couple years ago when the state had layoffs, I was bumped to a lower position and I got scared because I have nowhere else to go. I didn’t have my degree.”

She is in her second year, and in addition to attending classes, working at her job and raising a family, she mentors other students in the project.

“I can’t help anyone with homework, but I can help them with life’s problems, life skills and help them figure out how to overcome barriers like child care and transportation and give them support,” Rapozo said.

Rapozo is also setting an example for her two children, pointing out she does her homework at the same table with her oldest son to instill in him the importance of a higher education.

“I thought about college a lot,” said Kamuela Chandler, who is currently enrolled in his second semester of college. Chandler is a father of four and maintains a 4.0 GPA.

“Without this scholarship, I probably wouldn’t have been able to do this. It’s been a really positive experience,” Chandler said.

Gavin Klein, who is attending his second year of college, said he originally planned to compete in surf competitions before he heard about the project.

“It’s excellent,” Klein said. “It gave me an opportunity I didn’t have. They pay for everything. You can’t turn it down.”

Initially, students are asked to commit to college for one year. After the first year, if the student wishes to continue their education, the project will give additional support for tuition, books and fees up to earning an associate’s degree, and without putting restrictions on a time frame.

In addition, the program offers one-on-one academic guidance, plus a Summer Bridge camp, workshops and mentoring programs designed to help students transition into college and lead a successful academic career.

Christian Kaui, who is attending his second year of college, is now a mentor for other students. As a mentor he assists incoming students, which includes helping them through the application process, navigating the University of Hawai‘i website and volunteering during success camps.


Potential students are actively recruited by a network of community affiliates, including high school counselors and more than 24 social service agencies, including the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, Kaua‘i Community Correctional Center and Child and Family Services.

The project targets everybody — not just students graduating from high school.

Lally said five students enrolled in the project came from the correctional center, and all completed their first semester. Three achieved a 3.0 GPA, and two achieved a 4.0 GPA, he said.

“The team from KCC and Jim Lally worked really well together,” said KCC Chancellor Helen Cox. “He had a vision of where he wanted it to go, and we had the experience of higher education and how we might be able to get there. We both compromised, and we ended up with a product better than either one of us thought.”

Cox also served as a one-on-one mentor for the project, and she is considering expanding support services implemented for the Wai‘ale‘ale students to the rest of the student body.

Why Wai‘ale‘ale?

The project was named for Mount Wai‘ale‘ale. Wai‘ale‘ale is a source of water that nourishes the island, Perry said, and it also serves as a metaphor.

“When we set up services for our students, we look to isolate the impact of that service,” Perry said. “Every service you offer is a raindrop; it’s a drop of water that nourishes that plant.”

The project’s logo was designed by pre-nursing major Ariel Bunao.

 It features a taro plant with Mount Wai‘ale‘ale in the background with purple and red sun beams shining down.

In a taro field, everyone has to work together, Perry said. The purple represents Kaua‘i, and the red represents the sun.

Encouraging numbers

In the first year of the project, during the 2010–2011 school year, 41 students were enrolled in the project. In the second year, an additional 84 students were enrolled in the project.

During the first year of the project, Wai‘ale‘ale students achieved success (2.0 GPA and 67 percent completion of attempted credits) at a rate of 56 percent, compared to 60 percent for non-Wai‘ale‘ale students.

During the first semester of the second year, Wai‘ale‘ale student’s outperformed their non-Wai‘ale‘ale peers, with 76 percent achieving a 2.0 GPA or greater compared to 73 percent for the non-Wai‘ale‘ale students.

Another highlight of the program includes three high school students who were admitted while pregnant and gave birth during the semester.

All three completed their first semester and plan to re-enroll, while one earned a 4.0 GPA.

Other University of Hawai‘i community colleges are looking at the project as a model to incorporate at their own institutions.

At a recent luncheon highlighting the first year and a half of the project, representatives from Windward and Kapiolani community colleges were present to learn about the program.

While private donors funded the project initially, the Office of Hawaiian Affairs awarded $180,000 to the project last fall.

The project’s goal is to extend the program to all community colleges in Hawai‘i.

“This is a very ambitious goal, but five years from now we would like to be able to say anybody in Hawai‘i who wants to go to school can. We should be able to be the first state to say that,” Lally said.

• Andrea Frainier, lifestyle writer, can be reached at 245-3681, ext. 257 or afrainier@


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