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Pro surfer first to receive UH West Oʻahu’s Hawaiian and Indigenous Health and Healing degree

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Image courtesy of Moanalani Jones Wong

Professional surfer Moanalani Jones Wong is believed to be one of the best females to ever surf the legendary Banzai Pipeline, also known as Pipeline or Pipe, on Oʻahu’s North Shore.

Now Jones Wong is charging into her next epic distinction: She will be the first graduate of the University of Hawaiʻi–West Oʻahu’s Bachelor of Applied ScienceHawaiian and Indigenous Health and Healing (HIHH) program.

“It feels crazy to be the first … I am baffled,” quipped the recently married Haleiwa resident.

Jones Wong is one of 369 spring 2021 graduates who will be celebrated at UH West Oʻahu’s Virtual Commencement Ceremony, 9 a.m. Saturday, May 8.

“Moanaʻs graduation is the culmination of many years of work and planning across the university,” said Dr. Kauʻi Baumhofer Merritt, assistant professor of Indigenous Health Sciences at UH West Oʻahu. “The mere existence of the HIHH program is evidence of the universityʻs commitment to making steps towards creating an innovative and indigenous sense of learning on our campus.”

The HIHH concentration, which was introduced in fall 2019, strives to create a pathway for the dissemination of traditional healing knowledge and skill that will serve as a model for other indigenous groups.

Meanwhile, Jones Wong looks forward to Saturday’s commencement.

“It feels surreal,” she said. “It’s been a long and difficult journey, and I can’t believe I made it. This is huge for me.”

ʻSurfing is my passion’ 

Jones Wong, who was homeschooled and an Abeka Academy student, enrolled at UH West Oʻahu in summer 2016.

She originally majored in biology, then she took a class taught by Merritt called HLTH 204: Introduction to Native Hawaiian and Indigenous Health and Healing, which explores health and healing practices of indigenous island people from a historical, economic, community, clinical, and policy perspective.

“I changed majors despite me being a junior in bio,” Jones Wong recalled. “I just loved everything about Hawaiian health and healing, and I wanted to learn more about it.”

Moanalani Jones Wong holding a surfboard at the beach.

As part of her graduation requirement, Jones Wong recently presented her senior project titled, “Surfing: More Than a Sport.” Surfing, she shared, healed her of many things.

“Surfing is my passion,” said Jones Wong, 21, who has been surfing since she was a little girl. “That is what I am best at.”

She continued, “I feel so connected to my culture, my ancestors, and the ocean when I am out there. Surfing gave me my identity. It empowered me. In my hardest times I found peace in the ocean.”

Jones Wong’s senior project was about how surfing empowers Native Hawaiians to connect to their culture. It was a topic she was happy to write about and present, she said, because many people don’t talk about it and don’t realize how significant surfing is to Native Hawaiians.

“It is much more than a sport to us,” said Jones Wong, who is part Hawaiian.

In February 2019, surf publication Stab Magazine published the article, “ ʻShe’s the best female Pipe surfer … ever!’ says Jamie OʻBrien.” The piece introduced the then-19-year-old “Pipeline charger” with high praise from professional surfers OʻBrien and Barron Mamiya. In January this year, Jones Wong ranked No. 1 in the Vans Triple Crown of Surfing Pipeline-Women’s competition.

“I am very proud of that,” Jones Wong said about the distinction. “Ke Akua (God) helped me get there and I am very thankful.”

“Nothing beats pulling into a big barrel at Pipeline,” she continued. “I feel so connected, so happy, and so alive. It’s a feeling that I can’t describe. Nothing beats it.”

ʻUH West Oʻahu rules!’ 

Jones Wong said her post-graduation plans are still up in the air.

Moanalani Jones Wong sitting outdoors on the grass and wearing a haku lei.

“I recently just started a surf school and I am really enjoying that,” she said. “I am just going to go with the flow and see what doors open up.” (Anyone interested in learning more about her surf school may contact her at moana17surfs@gmail.com.)

Jones Wong said she will be able to apply her HIHH degree to her future endeavors, whatever they might be.

“Basically I can use Hawaiian health and healing (HHH) in my daily life, so I am sure whatever I choose to do, my HHH will go along with it,” she said.

And whatever her next goals are, Jones Wong said she knows she is prepared thanks to her experience at UH West Oʻahu.

“I think UH West Oʻahu has given me a lot of confidence in myself and made me realize I can do anything I put my heart into,” she said.

Among those who helped guide Jones Wong throughout her time at UH West Oʻahu was Merritt.

Dr. Kauʻi Baumhofer Merritt
Dr. Kauʻi Baumhofer Merritt

“Although it is really special and exciting that Moana is the first graduate in the BAS-HIHH program, what’s even more special is that the program helped us figure out that weʻre cousins,” Merritt shared.

It was during the second week of their first class together, while on a memorable class outing, that the two realized they have a mutual aunt who is first cousins with both Merritt’s mother and Jones Wong’s grandfather.

“I am a big believer that some people are put into your life for a reason and I truly believe Moana is one of them,” Merritt said.

As commencement nears, Jones Wong wants to encourage future graduates of UH West Oʻahu to never give up on themselves, try their best, and know that God will do the rest.

“My journey to graduate was not easy,” said Jones Wong, who recalled getting some bad grades. “But I realized it doesn’t matter how you start, it matters how you finish. Don’t get discouraged.

Jones Wong added that she has been a student at UH West Oʻahu since she was 17 years old and is now turning 22.

“It feels like it’s been forever, but looking back on it I have so many good memories,” she said. … “UH West Oʻahu rules!”

Note: There is an effort to raise $3,000 to create an annual Hawaiian and Indigenous Health and Healing Scholarship Fund through the UH Foundation to support HIHH students at UH West Oʻahu. To make a contribution or learn more, click here or email nicolekb@hawaii.edu.

Images courtesy of Moanalani Jones Wong and UHWO Staff

Image courtesy of Moanalani Jones Wong