They enrolled at UH West Oʻahu for different reasons during different semesters in different concentrations. But on Saturday, Dec. 9, Lynn Robinson-Onderko and her son Gus Harrington donned their black gowns and mortarboards and shared the graduation dais together during UH West Oʻahu’s fall 2017 Commencement.
“It made it more special,” said Harrington, who began taking classes at UH West Oʻahu in 2014, a semester before his mother started at the Kapolei campus.
“We were both competing in a polite way,” to graduate first, Harrington said. “Mom wanted to graduate before or with me because she started before me.”
Robinson-Onderko, 49, received a Bachelor of Arts in Public Administration with a concentration in general public administration. Harrington, 24, received a Bachelor of Arts in Humanities with a concentration in Creative Media.
Throughout the school year, most of their interaction took place in the overflow parking lot as one left school and the other arrived. If Harrington was walking with someone he would introduce his mom to his friends. “I was never embarrassed by it. My friends were just surprised that my mom was back in school and that we happened to go to the same school.”
“Being that we were in completely different programs we didn’t cross paths very much,” said Robinson-Onderko. “People would tease and say he wouldn’t say hello to his mom on campus, but he did.”
Most of the time it was just a quick hello, or an inquiry as to what time Harrington would be home, or what was for dinner. “We were both super, super busy,” Robinson-Onderko said.
It was Harrington who first became interested in UH West Oʻahu. As a student in television production he recalls a representative visiting the campus and asking if students would be interested if an Academy of Creative Media program accepted their Leeward class credits. Harrington was, but decided to work full-time at KITV, where he eventually became director for the station’s weekend morning program. He eventually enrolled at the Kapolei campus for the spring 2014 semester, and came to value the program at UHWO for helping him see a broader picture when it came to creative thinking.
Robinson-Onderko, also a Leeward Community College graduate with an associate degree in liberal arts, enrolled for the fall 2014 semester. She is one of nearly 41 percent of UH West Oʻahu students aged 25 and older. When considering UH West Oʻahu, the thought of commuting into Honolulu didn’t appeal to her and the institution’s public administration program looked like a good fit for someone who has worked on political campaigns and kept busy with advocacy and activism work, including testifying at the Legislature.
While not seeing each other on campus much, the two did try to help each other with studies at home. Harrington would ask his mother and father, a former Army Black Hawk pilot who attended classes at another institution for a master’s degree, for help with assignments or core classwork. Robinson-Onderko would seek her son’s help when technical problems came up.
“Everyone was pitching in to help,” said Harrington. “My parents and I would always be helping each other with whatever we could.”
Harrington now works as a technical director for Spectrum on a contract basis. He mainly works on high school sports broadcasts, sitting next to the director, implementing commands for changing camera shots, pulling up graphics and other work that goes into televising a game.
Robinson-Onderko, who is in her second term as a member of the ʻEwa Neighborhood Board, is in the process of applying for jobs with a non-profit sector. But she admits a run for elective office might be in the cards if a seat comes open and if no good candidates step up. She also serves as secretary for the LGBT Caucus of the Democratic Party of Hawaiʻi.
Harrington said he might not have participated in the 2017 fall commencement if not for his mother. He didn’t walk for his graduation from Leeward Community College, but because his mother wanted to take part in the UH West Oʻahu commencement, he decided to make graduation a family affair.
“My mother is kind of the opposite of me; she really wanted to do it,” Harrington said. “It makes it more special because she was there.”
Robinson-Onderko had the same realization, which was shared by others. “We had mutual friends, hanai family, that were so excited about it,” she said. “Between the two of us we had six parking passes so we had quite a crowd there.”