Building A Campus, Dreams

Gene Awakuni, a former juvenile delinquent and the least likely of academics, leads UH-West Oahu onto a new campus at Kapolei with visions of

Dan Boylan
Wednesday - November 07, 2007
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Makiki. She later became a seam-stress in a garment factory, ultimately rising to become a floor supervisor of 30 seamstresses. The Awakunis lived in the working-class neighborhood of Palolo.

“Kindergarten through sixth grade, I was OK,” Awakuni remembers. “I was always in the smart group.” Trouble started in the seventh at Jarrett Intermediate School. “I was cutting class, gambling,” Awakuni admits. “I was suspended a few times.”

Clara Awakuni blames herself for her son’s truancy. “When he was 3 years old he developed an illness,” she remembers. “He’d just bleed, bleed, bleed. My husband and I would rush him to the emergency room. It took him five years to get over that. I think I must have spoiled him during that time.”

At Kaimuki High School, his mother says, “He was difficult ... drinking, gambling, cutting class.”

“I barely made it through,” says Awakuni. “I had hundreds of detention hours. They let me march at graduation, but they didn’t give me a diploma until later. My brother Ed, who was a model student, had to pick it up for me.”


Awakuni’s parents despaired. “Both my parents thought I was incorrigible,” he says. “One time when I was busted for gambling my mom had to come down to the police department to get me. I could have gone to jail.”

When he wasn’t getting into trouble, the teenage Awakuni kept his head under the hood of a 1955 Chevy: “I raced it at Hawaii Raceway Park. My mom sold it when I went to Vietnam.”

In 1965, the year Kaimuki High School allowed him to graduate, Awakuni was prime cannon fodder. Neither his grades nor his disposition put him on the college track, so his father found him a job as a mason’s helper. He spent less than a year on the job. America’s war in Vietnam raged, and in the spring of 1966 Awakuni received his draft notice. He was one of five in his group who tapped for the Marine Corps.

“The Marine Corps offered me the first glimpse that I might have something going for me academically,” Awakuni remembers. “I was in San Diego in a battalion of 240 recruits. They gave us a battery of tests. A few days later, the drill instructor called three of us in and told us that, on the basis of the tests, we were all eligible to go to Marine Officer Candidates’ School.

“After training, I spent 13 months in an administrative office in Vietnam, working in a support squadron,” he says. “They had a ‘school out’program that allowed you to complete your service three months early if you were accepted to a college for the coming semester. I wrote a letter to Idaho State, explaining my bad grades and arguing that I was a changed man. There was a guy from Hawaii named DeSoto in their admissions office, and he admitted me provisionally.”

Awakuni returned to Hawaii after one semester and took a job driving a cement truck. In the fall of 1970 he went back to school at Leeward Community College. Two years later, he transferred to Manoa.

The born-again student enrolled in the College of Business, where he came within a half dozen courses of a degree in accounting. “Then I stumbled into an elective course titled ‘Politics and the Novel.’ I knew I’d never be anything more than a mediocre accountant, so I switched my major to political science. That’s why it took me six years to finish college.”

Awakuni’s undergraduate education included more than school.

“I was a member of Vietnam Veterans Against the War and took part in anti-war demonstrations,” he remembers. “I ran for president of the Associated Students of the University of Hawaii on an Ethnic Studies ticket.”


Awakuni won. It was in campus politics that he made friends who would rise to the top of Hawaii’s political and economic structure: future congresswoman Mazie Hirono, state Sen. Brian Taniguchi, state Rep. Carl Takamura, First Hawaiian Bank vice chairman Gary Caulfield, Maui Land and Pine’s David Cole, and Alexander and Baldwin Properties CEO Stan Kuriyama.

Awakuni received his undergraduate degree from Manoa in 1976; two years later he finished a master’s in social work and took a job at the Waipahu Mental Health Center. He also put in hours at the Vet Center. In 1980 Awakuni headed for Harvard University to study for a Ph.D. in counseling and consulting psychology. He was there for five years, one of which was spent on an internship at the University of California-Irvine.

Degree in hand, Awakuni’s internship turned into a job offer as a staff psychologist at Irvine. He also taught, creating a course titled Asian-American psychology. “We thought we’d get 35 students; 85 showed up. By the time

I left Irvine, the class enrolled 150, and we had a waiting list of 350.”

In 1990 he moved to UC-Santa Barbara as an assistant vice chancellor for academic affairs; in 1993 to Cal Tech-Pomona; in 2000 he spent a year at Columbia University; and in 2001 he became vice provost for student affairs at Stanford.

Awakuni’s suitability for the West Oahu position goes directly to his own experience and that of his parents and many others in Hawaii. And it’s been on display the past two years in commencement speeches Awakuni has given to the West Oahu graduates.

He confesses his misspent youth to the new grads, his working class background, and his status as a local: “Growing up I was a kolohe kid. The usual kind stuff: suspended from school for cutting class and gambling and fighting. I did not spend a lot of time in school. My pidgin was so t’ick, my teachers told me they could-n’t understand what I was saying. I’m not proud of everything I did back then, but that’s who I was.”

He tells them of how he grew tired of working-class jobs, went to Leeward, Manoa and Harvard, and found mentors “who saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself.”

“This is where you come in,” he tells the new baccalaureates. “You have the ability, the power, like the mentors in my life, to make a difference in a young person’s life.” He acknowledges how so many of West Oahu’s non-traditional students “have overcome huge obstacles on the strength of your tenacity and belief in yourself. That’s good.

“My challenge to you is beyond striving to achieve success in your job, beyond making a good living for yourself and your family. Please show your compassion, your love for the kids coming along who need a role model - someone they can look up to, someone who has beaten the odds and made it out of the neighborhood and gone on to achieve a college degree.

“You know that it used to be in the old days in Hawaii, wealth was not measured by the number of possessions you accumulated, but by the number of people you helped. Go forward and no matter what else you do, involve yourself in your community and be a role model and the supporter our young people so desperately need.”

It’s a good speech, because it comes from Awakuni’s experience - and from his heart.

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