Mayor Billy Kenoi knows how it feels to be uncertain about school. As a boy, it felt at times like he would never accomplish his goals.
Many people helped him fulfill the potential they saw in him and were supportive no matter how distant his dreams seemed.
Kenoi was the keynote speaker Wednesday evening at Waimea Middle School, where he shared advice on how to be successful with students, families, educators and mentors. His talk was part of the school’s Connecting For Success program, which empowers students with the skills, values and cultural understanding to successfully navigate high school and beyond.
Supported by a three-year Hawaii Community Foundation grant, Connecting For Success helps students stay connected with school, succeed in academics, and explore college and career dreams. Nearly 40 students are participating in the program, which began in the fall. It provides personalized support and intervention, including free tutoring, mentoring, counseling, workshops, learning plans and college and career readiness opportunities.
“Schools play a critical role in developing positive academic and healthy outcomes for youth. Students who believe that adults and peers in school care about their learning and about them as individuals are more likely to succeed academically and are less likely to engage in risky behaviors,” according to the program.
Kenoi told students “to dream, to work hard and never ever give up.” But he also said it’s important that teachers, parents and the community hear his story because the students’ dreams cannot exist with them alone.
“Their dreams need to be nurtured, need to be encouraged, need to be supported. They need to be motivated, they need to be inspired, they need to believe. Kids got to believe,” Kenoi said. “If I could give any one thing out to our kids in my pocket right now, I would only give everyone one thing. I would give them hope. Because hope allows you to avoid difficult, challenging, negative decisions.”
During his remarks, Kenoi recommended students visit the coolest place in the school — the library. Growing up in Kalapana, with no running water or electricity, Kenoi said he never had money to go anywhere, but he could travel the whole world and meet the coolest people in history through the library. One person he met there was Alexander the Great, known for his military genius and diplomatic skills in handling the people of the various regions he conquered. When Alexander was a teen, his father, King Philip II of Macedon, decided he needed higher education and searched for a tutor. Greek philosopher Aristotle was hired as his private tutor.
When Kenoi got kicked out of Kamehameha Schools in eighth grade, he was ashamed. He later went to Waiakea High School, where he was not a committed student and struggled academically. He earned a 1.8 GPA. Because of his poor grades, Kenoi said he couldn’t go to a university. So instead, he went to community college. He flunked out. But because Kenoi had a dream, he went back.
A key to being successful, Kenoi said, is to dream big and to ensure that the dream is yours. His childhood dream was to be a lawyer, even though he had never met an attorney, wasn’t related to one and never saw one that looked like him. Dreams can overcome any obstacle or hurdle as long as you never give up on them, he said. The trick is to work hard. He added, no one is going to hand you your dreams, but “isn’t it cool that you control your dreams.”
Kenoi insisted the harder you work, the better you do; the more you put in, the more you get out. When Kenoi decided to go back to community college, he started hitchhiking there from Kalapana and made it daily. He also worked at a pizza parlor at night and did landscaping on the side.
Kenoi also expanded his dream to include going to the University of Massachusetts Amherst, a decision he told everyone about. It was also a decision that worried and horrified his mother, who questioned if he knew anyone there or had money to actually get there. His answer was no. While not knowing exactly how he would get there, Kenoi did have a plan. He was going to get into law school, but to do that he needed to get into a university. By going to Hawaii Community College and consistently making the dean’s list, he was able to transfer to the University of Hawaii at Hilo.
Kenoi was later accepted through the National Student Exchange Program to UMASS where he made honors and then transferred in. He graduated from there in 1993 as a member of the university’s political science honor society. It’s also where he met his wife — a volleyball player from Japan.
After UMASS, Kenoi got into UH’s William S. Richardson School of Law on his first try. He served as the president of the Delta Theta Phi Law Fraternity and delivered the commencement address for his graduating class in 1996. He also passed the bar exam on his first try. “So parents, no panic,” he joked.
Kenoi also encouraged the students to define success for themselves and believe in it. However, he stressed success is not a fancy job title, cool car or big house. He said the people he admires most are those who are humble, as well as treat others with aloha and respect.