Written By Gregory Fischbach

January 25, 2024
Share this article:
  • HPU students Orion Hefling (left) and Aileen Kekumu (right) with their English professor Julian Bukalski (center) at the Ho'oko offices

    HPU students Orion Hefling (left) and Aileen Kekumu (right) with their English professor Julian Bukalski (center) at the Ho'oko offices.

  • The Ho'oko offices at Waterfront Plaza

    The Ho'oko offices at Waterfront Plaza.

In 2022, HPU received a $3.35 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education to create a student support services program for first-year students to ensure their academic success at the University. It is the first program of its kind at HPU, a cutting-edge approach to support under-resourced or under-represented students who are earning a bachelor’s degree or associate degree and have placed into a first-year transitional math or writing course. The program was spearheaded by HPU Senior Vice President and Provost Jennifer Walsh, Ph.D., and is led by HPU Director of the Ho‘okō Rising Scholars Program Adam Clark, Ph.D. 

The inaugural cohort of nearly 80 Ho‘okō Rising Scholars students began their studies in fall 2023. Students gathered at Aloha Tower Marketplace to meet with professors and staff for a special meet-and-greet before classes began. Students learned about the specifics of the program and about the opportunities to speak with academic coaches, career mentors, and dedicated writing and math tutors. And thanks to an additional grant from the Kosasa Foundation students will receive a stipend for textbooks and access to healthy food and snacks.

It was during finals week that two Ho‘okō students and their English professor sat down in the new Ho‘okō offices in Waterfront Plaza to discuss the tremendous successes of the program and their academic plans.

HPU students Orion Hefling and Aileen Kekumu collaborate on an assignment in the Ho'oko offices

HPU students Orion Hefling and Aileen Kekumu collaborate on an assignment in the Ho'oko offices.

Orion Hefling and Aileen Kekumu are freshmen at HPU. Their individualized paths to enrolling at the University differ, but their excitement about studying at the University and their shared passion for the Ho‘okō Program represent a remarkable achievement for a program that just began but has already inspired a generation of first-year college students.

Kekumu is a pre-nursing major. She was born and raised in Honolulu and graduated from Roosevelt High School. She knew right away that HPU was the right university for her career aspirations to eventually earn a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) degree at HPU. Kekumu beamed with delight when discussing Ho‘okō and her overall experience at HPU.

“Prior to my first fall semester as an incoming freshman, HPU sent me an email encouraging me to apply to the Ho‘okō Program. What drew me in was the program’s offer to pay for my textbooks via the Shark Bundle for my first two years in school,” Kekumu said. “Additionally, I was offered free tutoring to help me if I struggle in my classes, peer mentor support from older students who act as friends and guides to navigate life as a college student, an academic coach who will overlook my four-year academic plan and help me keep a steady path, and a career coach who will help me look beyond college and achieve big personal and professional goals. I consider myself very fortunate to be able to enjoy these benefits along with the fiery passion and kindness of each staff member within the program who revolve their work around the students' needs for success and well-being.”

Hefling is studying criminal justice with plans to become a detective. He was born and raised in Orange, California, and graduated from Villa Park High School where he excelled at playing baseball. It was while on vacation one summer with his family in Hawaiʻi that Hefling realized his strong connection to the islands. 

“I saw firsthand that Hawaiʻi is an amazing place. Just being here was such a rewarding, beautiful experience,” said Hefling. “When I got back home to Orange, coincidentally, I received an email from HPU with information on how to apply, and I thought it would be perfect to study in Hawaiʻi and go to school at HPU.”

Hefling completed his application for early action and received the exciting news that he was admitted into HPU for the fall 2023 semester. He knew that HPU was the university he wanted to attend, and when he told his parents of his decision they were extremely supportive.

“Overall, it was a great decision, and I love it here,” said Hefling.

Kekumu has lived in Hawaiʻi for her entire life and had considered other colleges on the continental U.S., but when HPU offered her a generous scholarship she knew it was the right decision to study at home and take the opportunity to study abroad through HPU’s many study abroad program offerings. In summer 2024, she plans to study in Japan, the first time she will travel to Asia.

“I really want to see and experience other places while at HPU. Studying abroad will give me that opportunity,” said Kekumu.

Hefling and Kekumu’s overwhelmingly positive experiences in Ho‘okō exemplify the nearly 80 students who are in the program. The opportunity to work with an assigned tutor in their writing lab has been beneficial in their early academic success. Tutors work closely with Ho‘okō students to ensure that each research paper or essay is organized, thoughtful, and resonates well.

“Tutors will also review papers from other classes we are taking, besides our English classes,” said Hefling.  

Julian Bukalski discusses a writing assignment with HPU students Orion Hefling and Aileen Kekumu in the Ho'oko offices

Julian Bukalski discusses a writing assignment with HPU students Orion Hefling and Aileen Kekumu in the Ho'oko offices.

HPU English Lecturer Julian Bukalski, Ph.D., has instructed Hefling and Kekumu in the fall 2023 semester. He shared that Hefling and Kekumu are brilliant students and are a pleasure to teach.

“They work really hard, and are a joy to have as students,” Bukalski said. “Both are incredible writers, and they care about what they are doing. They want to do well. The Ho‘okō students are wonderful; they take studies seriously. From the start of the program to the end of their first semester, students’ skills have really improved. Data shows that student success in their first and second semesters in college is vital in their projected outcomes as juniors and seniors. And that is why we have the Ho‘okō program. It’s about student success for their first two years in college, a very important period for a student to succeed.”

Activities in the Ho‘okō program include pizza Friday, pancake Monday, and the newest addition, puppy day.

“Puppy day is the best!” said Kekumu. “We had eight-week-old puppies visit the Ho‘okō offices one day and we all got to hang out with puppies during our mid-terms. It really helped with stress and managing a busy week. Everything in the program has been great so far, very beneficial for our academic success. I greatly admire each staff member in the Ho‘okō office. They all have impressive backgrounds and a mix of lovable personalities which leads to the great part of the program, the sense of community. They all genuinely care about everything we say and do because they are there to celebrate with us when we achieve a goal, but also when something goes wrong, or we have a problem. They are the first to say, ‘OK, you have a problem, and we are going to help you fix it.’”

Bukalski noted that there is a significant difference between what larger public schools offer and what HPU provides for its students. 

“HPU students, and in particular, Ho‘okō students, get the support they need to succeed,” Bukalski noted. “They have food available for them, workshops, assistance with applying for scholarships, dealing with finals, de-stress opportunities, career coaching opportunities. Resume workshops. The Ho‘okō offices have a sense of community. The offices are open Monday to Friday for students to stop in anytime and be part of the HPU community.”

Kekumu shared that everyone at HPU has been welcoming and goes the extra mile to ensure their success and happiness. Students are offered free counseling services where they can see a psychologist and access to other outlets from the wellness center, such as the school chaplain.

“HPU is a college that provides an excelling education, community, safety, and wellness. Professors and administrators all want us to be here, to succeed,” says Kekumu, “and it’s comforting to know that there is always someone here who cares about us and our success and mental health. It helps some students with homesickness for sure.”

Hefling noted that he did not experience any homesickness or culture shock from being away for college, some 2,500 miles away from home. He believes much of this acclimation is a direct correlation to all the positive work HPU staff and faculty provides to its students. 

“I also believe that HPU really honors the culture of Hawaiʻi,” said Hefling. “Through most of the University’s classes, a good number of subjects focus on Hawaiʻi. A lot of classes go the distance to ensure students are aware of the history of Hawaiʻi and the legacy of its people.” 

It’s certainly clear that the HPU Ho‘okō Rising Scholars program is off to a rewarding and fantastic start at the University. All incoming freshmen who are interested in being part of the program in fall 2024 are encouraged to apply to HPU, and if qualified an admissions representative will be in touch with the details on joining the program.

To embark on a transformative journey at HPU and become part of a thriving community the first step is to apply. Click here to start an application and join a program that goes beyond education, fostering growth, support, and academic excellence.

The Ohana teal logo