By Mark Ladao | Staff Writer
It is the end of the school year, so schools around the country are holding graduation ceremonies. It is the season of graduating students fitting themselves into caps and gowns and getting ready to sit in large auditoriums for three hours.
Some students have decorated caps; others have sashes or accessories that represent their various accomplishments or affiliations as a student. But for the most part, students wear the same thing, and because they are all together, they are indistinguishable, lost in a sea of their school’s color.
Also lost are the individual stories and struggles that led the students to earning their caps and gowns. This is a fact of all graduation ceremonies, one that only the valedictorian speaker is spared from.
For Kapiʻolani Community College’s 2018 graduation ceremony, that speaker was Tina Oh.
She was not the only valedictorian — around ten other students with a 4.0 grade point averages were distinguished as valedictorians — but said she had to apply to speak by submitting a letter about her life’s journey up to graduation, a journey the school thought deserved to be shared.
Oh said she arrived at KCC in 2011 with a ninth-grade education. The single mother dropped out of high school, which also means she did not attend a ceremony to celebrate it. This graduation was her first.
Dropping out of high school led to a road of incarceration, alcoholism, homelessness and depression.
Oh said she had lived on the streets of Waikīkī and in the downtown area in the 1990s and was, at one point, even suicidal.
But when given six months by Child Protective Services to turn her life around or lose parental rights to her daughter, who is now 11, Oh said it hit her.
“I couldn’t change my life,” she said in an interview before the ceremony. “But then I had a moment of sanity — because I was so insane out there — that I cannot let the cycle of my life, my dysfunctional life, go onto the next generation.”
Oh said she had gotten this far for her daughter but also for her mother, who also dropped out of high school.
In fact, Oh said her graduation was dedicated to her entire family, who she felt she had disappointed.
“This is a living amends to my family for all the past hurt I’ve caused them for many, many years,” she said. “So, this is my way of saying thank you.”
Oh finished earning her degree — an Associate in Arts with a concentration in Family Resources — in the fall semester last year and attended courses at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa this semester.
She is working on a bachelor’s of science Bachelor of Science in Human Development and Family Resources with the intention of helping the “marginalized areas of our community,” mentioning an interest in assisting the homeless and those suffering from addiction.
Oh said it might take a while to earn a bachelor’s degree, but this time for a reason her family need not worry about.
“Now that I started work full-time, I will have to go [to school] part-time,” she said. “So it might take me a little longer, but I’ll get there.”
She works at the non-profit organization The Child Project.