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Past and future generations on student speaker’s mind


Image courtesy of UHWO Staff

For Jahnna-Marie Kehaulani Kahele-Madali, her upcoming graduation from the University of Hawai‘i–West O‘ahu represents a way to honor both the past and the future.

“After losing both my grandma and momma (grandma’s sister) within two years, this is what makes graduation even more important — as our elders represent the reason we were able to even pursue a post-secondary education in the first place — to represent the people who never had the opportunity to go to college,” said the Nānākuli resident, 26.

Kahele-Madali will share her story as one of two student speakers at UH West O‘ahu’s 2024 Annual Commencement Ceremony, 9 a.m. May 4 in the SimpliFi Arena at the Stan Sheriff Center on the UH Mānoa campus. 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 Clarence T.C. Ching Field. Tickets and parking passes are not required.

This semester, more than 330 students are candidates for graduation, and of these students, about 230 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.

Kahele-Madali will receive a Bachelor of Arts in Humanities with a concentration in Hawaiian-Pacific Studies. By earning her college degree, Kahele-Madali will not only honor the past and the elders before her, she also aims to inspire future generations.

Born premature — weighing just two pounds and two ounces — and raised by two foster mothers, Kahele-Madali speaks from her own personal experience when she shares the importance of rising above struggles and striving for a better life.

“Coming from a drug-infested and impoverished community, these stereotypes have a way of pre-determining the lives of the kids on the West Side,” she said. “So this graduation to me means I can be that beacon of hope for my people, that we are more than the mediocre lifestyle that surrounds us.”

‘Love of land and commitment to people’

Kahele-Madali, who also goes by the nicknames “Jahns” and “Kehau,” graduated in 2016 from Nānākuli High and Intermediate School, where she is the head junior varsity girls basketball coach.

Jahnna-Marie Kehaulani Kahele-Madali
UH West O‘ahu 2024 Annual Commencement Ceremony student speaker Jahnna-Marie Kehaulani Kahele-Madali.

After graduating from Nānākuli, she enrolled in Highline Community College in Washington on a basketball scholarship and received an associate degree in Liberal Arts in 2018. She then transferred to UH West O‘ahu in fall 2019.

Throughout her years at UH West O‘ahu, Kahele-Madali flourished under the guidance of Dr. Manu Aluli Meyer and Indrajit Gunasekara, co-founders of Niu Now and co-coordinators of the Uluniu Project at UH West O‘ahu.

Today, Kahele-Madali works as a mahi‘ai (one who cultivates the land) at the uluniu, or coconut grove, on campus. She also serves as the president of the Uluniu Student Service Club.

“I have known Kehau as a young student (high school sophomore) attending our māla events for the Mālama Learning Center,” said Meyer, Kūlana o Kapolei. The center is an organization that brings art, science, conservation, and culture together to promote sustainable living throughout Hawai‘i.

“She was not afraid of hard work and enjoyed the collective effort with others,” Meyer said. “We have been fortunate to have Kehau as an active member of our Uluniu Project.”

Meyer commended Kahele-Madali for her “infectious and healing” light and honesty, and her strength and wisdom.

“I have loved seeing Kehau grow in her love of land and her commitment to people,” Meyer said.

Gunasekara remembers meeting Kahele-Madali in early 2018 when she was an intern for Kupu, an organization that provides youth with service-learning and environmental stewardship opportunities, at Mālama Learning Center and working at Kapolei High School’s native plant nursery.

“We immediately recruited her to be a part of the Uluniu Project at UH West O‘ahu, where she transferred to be a student,” recalled Gunasekara, who is also a financial aid officer at UH West O‘ahu. “She is one of the exceptionally talented and highly capable mentees, and an emerging leader that UH West O‘ahu is very fortunate to have.”

Kahele-Madali recently assisted in taking the Uluniu mission to Hana, Maui, to collect diverse coconut varieties, set up a large nursery system, and plant a coconut grove.

“Kehau’s hard work and passionate commitment to the Aloha ‘Āina movement is very inspiring to many in our community,” Gunasekara said. “Even during some of the most challenging times in her life, Kehau remained steady, being one of the first to show up in the early morning and the last ones to leave many of our Uluniu workdays at UH West O‘ahu, as well as many of the community activities.”

‘Keep on going’

Kahele-Madali said her future plans include giving back to the community, working on the incorporation of mālama ‘āina-based practices into school curriculums to inspire children to pursue a better life through ‘āina work.

“My life goal is to continue connecting our lāhui (people) back to their cultural roots and helping them find their purpose through ‘āina-based hana (work) and education,” she said. “I believe UH West O‘ahu has built that network where I can branch out to different resources and bring it back to my kaiāulu (community). Aunty Manu and Indrajit have blessed me with the knowledge and tools to make this difference.”

Immediately after graduation, Kahele-Madali will work as a summer intern with ‘Elepaio Social Services at Wai‘anae Coast Comprehensive Health Center. She also plans to continue working with Gunasekara on “bigger picture” niu activities later in the year.

In the meantime, Kahele-Madali is focused on graduation this week.

“As this year’s student speaker, the main message I hope to share with my fellow graduates and others in attendance at commencement would be to continue the race our ancestors started,” she said. “No matter what life throws at you, keep on going — for your kūpuna, ‘ohana, kaiāulu, and for the lāhui.”

Click here to read more about Dave Ian Domingo Sebastian, who was also selected to be a 2024 Annual Commencement student speaker.

Image courtesy of UHWO Staff