For Gabriel “Gabby” Barrientos Navalta — a Filipino first-generation college student who hails from Laupāhoehoe, a small town on the Hāmākua Coast of Hawai‘i Island — graduating isn’t just about him.
“I’m not only doing it for myself, I’m doing it for those family members who have supported me through everything, for my friends, and of course, Laupāhoehoe, my community. I’m doing it for them,” said the 23-year-old who now resides in Kaimukī.
Navalta will be among the participants and one of two student speakers at UH West O‘ahu’s Spring 2023 Commencement — which for the first time will be at the Stan Sheriff Center on the UH Mānoa campus — at 9 a.m. on Saturday, May 6. All guests are welcome to the ceremony on a first-come, first-seated basis, and will be able to greet their graduates following the formal commencement program at the Les Murakami Stadium.
This semester, more than 300 students are candidates for graduation, and of these students, about 240 will be participating in commencement, which will celebrate Applied Science, Business Administration, Creative Media, Cybersecurity, Education, Humanities, Natural Science, Public Administration, and Social Sciences candidates. UH West O‘ahu graduates from 2020, 2021, and 2022 were also invited to take part in the ceremony, and about 70 will be participating.
Navalta will receive, with Distinction, a Bachelor of Arts in Creative Media with a concentration in General Creative Media.
He said he hopes to go back to Laupāhoehoe to help with the next generation of his hometown, whether through doing community work, getting involved with local organizations, or just raising students “up to the next level.”
“Giving back, I think that’s what drives me and drives the things that I do because I’ve been honored and blessed with a lot of different opportunities and I want to try my hand at paying it forward right now and in the near future,” Navalta said.
An encouraging leader
Navalta enrolled at UH West O‘ahu in fall 2020, attending completely online for his first year while still living on Hawai‘i Island. Then he moved to O‘ahu in summer 2021 and has been attending the university in person since fall 2021.
Currently he is employed at the Academy for Creative Media at UH West O‘ahu as a student assistant, creating content for social media and representing the program at multiple events for high school students interested in college and industry opportunities. Navalta is also a member of the National Society of Leadership & Success, and the Student Media Board at UH West O‘ahu.
Among his most notable achievements in his three years at the university was serving as president of the 10th Senate of the Associated Students of the University of Hawai‘i–West O‘ahu (ASUHWO) during the 2021-2022 school year.
Rouel Velasco, director of Student Life and ASUHWO Senate advisor, recalled how Navalta served during the height of the pandemic and distance learning.
“While things may have been challenging, COVID or remote instruction did not stop him from serving and making a difference,” Velasco said. “All meetings were online and his familiarity with technology allowed him to flourish as a leader.”
Velasco said under Navalta’s leadership, the senate remained active in advocating on behalf of students. They advocated to change the drive-through commencement to an in-person modified commencement, held online scholarship nights for distance education neighbor island students, and urged instructors to get Laulima training to better the learning experiences for students.
“Gabby was able to hold each senator accountable while extending aloha to each person,” Velasco said. “He presented at each of the faculty senate meetings providing progress and update reports, as well as the Board of Regents meetings and UH West O‘ahu convocations.”
On the Student Media Board, Navalta developed a second-hand nature to running and facilitating meetings and assigning tasks to board members to fulfill by the next meeting, added Velasco, who is also co-advisor of the board.
“He is an encourager and at the same time, task-oriented, wanting to ensure that the board gets things done,” Velasco said. “His overall being influences his peers to step up their leadership and get things done.”
‘Ready to level up’
Navalta is one of two featured commencement student speakers chosen on criteria including academic achievement and a record of meaningful university or community service.
With the ceremony nearing, Navalta is preparing a personal and powerful story that at its heart conveys an uplifting message about the importance of gratitude and inspiration.
“As I was writing my speech and trying to think about the lessons I would like to teach and the things I’ve learned in my mere 23 years of living, it all gravitates and connects back to the hardest thing that I’ve ever done, which is coming out to my family,” Navalta shared.
The decision “came with very harmful and negative consequences,” he said. “But I feel like that was a very hard reset for me, to really think about what I wanted out of life, what I was grateful for, and what I could do to move forward.”
From that negative came a positive.
“What I bring up in my speech is something that my sister told me, that when things seem like they’re getting really hard for you … that means that you’re ready to level up,” Navalta said. “So I talk about that leveling up and moving through life in steps. … It’s taking things one step at a time to get to what you really want once things are clear. I wanted to explain that despite the ‘explosion,’ once the smoke clears, so to speak, things are more clear for you to see and you can move forward.”
As part of his message, Navalta wants people to remember what to be grateful for and to be inspired by what they can share with others as well as what others can share with them, and reflecting on these things and being open to new experiences.
“I hope that at the ending of (the speech), I can help others realize their most authentic selves and have them think about what they really want to do as they get that degree and move forward in their life,” he said.
After graduation, Navalta will still be connected to UH West O‘ahu after being tapped to help work on “Life Stories of Cultural Practitioners,” a project led by Dr. Masahide Kato in collaboration with other faculty and funded by a grant award from the Hawai‘i Council for the Humanities.
“It is a documentary (films and videos) that tells the story of two Hawaiian practitioners, their mo‘olelo, and how exactly these two Hawaiian practitioners — one being an old-timer who has been in the area for a long time to a new-generation practitioner — and comparing and contrasting their journeys and their stories,” Navalta explained. “Then at the ending of it next year, having an opportunity for those two to watch each other’s documentaries and to have that conversation in front of a live audience. So that’s going to be really cool to see.”
In addition to that, Navalta’s immediate post-graduation plans include doing freelance work and contract work, helping others’ creative visions come to life through his media skills, through photography and videography.
“I’ll be utilizing what I’ve been using from UH West O‘ahu in the media classes and in extra curricular activities that taught me about the power of connection,” he said.
Sharla Hanaoka, director of the Academy for Creative Media at UH West O‘ahu, said Navalta is one of the most resilient students she knows.
“Despite being in his early 20s, his level of maturity and focus exceeds that of many professionals,” Hanaoka said. “It is without a doubt that he will achieve success in whatever he sets his mind to accomplish.”
Click here to read more about Anthony Miguel, who was also selected to be a Spring 2023 Commencement student speaker.