How Hawaii’s Unique Graduation Traditions Are Upended By Coronavirus
High school graduations are a large part of Hawaii’s cultural fabric, celebrated with a fanfare unique to the islands. “College graduations aren’t guaranteed,” said Kealoha Charles, a recent high school graduate.
In 2018, about 90% of youth graduated from high school, but only 30% graduated from college. Just 55% of local youth attend college to begin with, a proportion that hasn’t shifted since 2013.
Because of this, local students and their families pull out all the stops to celebrate high school graduations. Most are marked by a lei ceremony, blow-out celebrations and epic senior song performances. Family and friends travel throughout the islands and from around the world to attend.
“I don’t think that people in the mainland know how crazy [it gets],” said Chrislyn Antonio, a recent graduate.
This year, though, many schools were abruptly shut down due to COVID-19, leaving high school seniors devastated. Some schools may not do anything to mark the event. But families, friends, graduates and community members continue to pull together to throw independent celebrations when they can.
Drive-by lei ceremonies and virtual ceremonies have been the new trend, modifying the old tradition to fit new social distancing requirements. One Oahu public school even invited graduates to walk a red carpet to get their diplomas while socially distancing.
Stay-at-home orders in Hawaii have been extended to June 30, after which many graduates are moving off-island to pursue school and employment. They are hoping to be able to see at least their closest friends one more time in person before they part ways.
Asha Silva is the first of four children to graduate high school and was looking forward to sharing that experience with her family. Instead, she said, “Everyone’s on edge” now. Her dad lost his job because of the pandemic, and her mom may be forced to take a pay cut as a public school teacher.
Though lei ceremonies are common in Hawaii, Silva has never been to one. She was saving that moment for her own graduation. But “now I regret not going” to other ceremonies, she said. To add insult to injury, past graduates were making fun of her class on social media for not having a traditional ceremony.
Silva’s mom helped her feel better, though, when she pointed out that her graduation year will be one of the most memorable in history. Silva learned how to make her own ti leaf lei with her mother during the quarantine and plans to wear it to her graduation ceremony. She and her classmates will participate in a livestreamed drive-thru ceremony.
Silva will then celebrate with her family and prepare to move back to her birthplace, North Carolina, in a few months to reunite with her birth mother and to begin college.
“It was a sad experience – but enjoyable at the same time,” Ashley Phommavong said about her school’s graduation, in which she and other graduates were able to walk to pick up their diplomas.
Some high schools left graduates without any form of recognition, but Phommavong’s was one of few to put on a socially distanced ceremony, rolling out a red carpet for them to receive their diplomas.
Phommavong played alto saxophone in the school’s marching band. The band was set to attend a competition in Ohio when the school lockdown was announced. She recalls crying at first, worried about graduation while scrambling to put together one final performance with her bandmates just two days after the lockdown. They were not prepared and could only invite a limited number of people, but they completed the performance as their last event of senior year.
Phommavong misses interacting with her friends in person but has enjoyed bonding with her family. Her parents joined TikTok and “try to get us to make videos together,” she said, laughing.
There’s also one upside to drive-by lei ceremonies. “When you get to lei them, you can actually take your time.” Before COVID-19, lei ceremonies were often packed to the brim, making it hard for graduates to find their friends in the crowd, let alone to give them leis. With social distancing measures enforced and individual drive-by celebrations, that is no longer a problem.
Phommavong has learned not to take anything for granted — even simple things such as attending school each day with friends. Next, she will be moving to Oregon for college.
Princeton Liugalua loves to sing and play music, and pre-lockdown, he used to take his ukulele to school to jam with his friends. That is all different now. “All that hard work I put into learning, … I feel like it went down the drain a little bit,” he said.
Still, he’s made the most out of this time: bonding with his younger brothers, FaceTiming with his grandpa and connecting with other families through weekly Zoom sessions with his church.
“The type of graduation we have in Hawaii is way different than the mainland,” Liugalua said of typical years.
Liugalua’s family still found a way to make his graduation special. His drive-by graduation party drew more than 300 people. His mother made more than 350 bento box meals to give out to everyone who stopped by. A lot of people came whom he didn’t even expect, he said. At the end, he and his cousin danced the taualuga (Samoan money dance) on the street outside his home, surrounded by his family.
Liugalua recently found out that he will get to perform his class’ senior song with two of his best friends at their high school’s alternative ceremony. “This could be our last time singing together,” he said.
Liugalua plans to move to Las Vegas to pursue employment and a potential career in entertainment.
Jordan Fujimoto is the oldest of seven children. He was working as an essential worker at McDonald’s at the beginning of the pandemic, but stopped a few weeks into quarantine for his safety. Now he mostly stays at home but remains social by swimming and diving with small groups of friends when he can. The water is clearer now, with “a lot more fish,” he said.
Fujimoto has been reflecting on God and how he believes he is being taught a lesson during this time: to become closer to his sisters and his family. “Some days are really good, and some days are like, ʻHo, brah!′ I get so irritated at every little thing. … There’s the good days and the bad days.”
One of the good days was his graduation, during which the entire town came out to support students. Local firefighters and neighbors held up signs as the graduates drove by, and he rode with his divorced parents in the same car for the first time in years. “I want to thank my family, my mom and my stepdad for raising me up good and taking care of me,” he said.
Fujimoto will be moving to Texas in a few months to join the Air National Guard.
Chrislyn Antonio went to every football game in high school and made lots of friends. Graduation was supposed to be a time when “you see everyone that loves you and that you love,” she said.
Antonio had been looking forward to graduation at Aloha Stadium, celebrating with family, giving leis to her classmates and singing her senior song. Each school year, seniors choose a song (or mashup/medley of songs) and rehearse during graduation practice, many for weeks or months ahead of time. This year, her class was going to sing “Good Times Together,” a classic local song from the ʻ80s.
Antonio finished her classes early because she was pregnant but had been coming regularly for graduation practices. “[We] didn’t know the last day of school was the last day,” she said.
Antonio has been doing well but worries about her boyfriend, his family and her baby – who all suffer from asthma.
Antonio has been staying busy with a small business named after her daughter, Embrie-Rose. She sews accessories and face masks, donating one free mask to anyone working in the medical field. She even sent a few to her labor and delivery nurse for her and her family. They connected recently on Instagram and have kept in touch.
Antonio will be attending college in the fall and has decided to pursue a nursing degree.
Kealoha Charles is an activist, student council member and water polo player and has been dancing hula since she was 6 years old. For her older sister’s high school graduation, the family prepared for more than a week, catching squid for luau (a traditional Hawaiian dish) and organizing for the celebration. Charles’ sister has had health issues since she was a baby, so making it to graduation was a big deal. “It’s been a fight their entire life just to make it to graduation,” Charles said about Hawaii high school graduates.
Charles compares graduation to a baby’s first luau, which is also a major celebration in Hawaii. “Babies living past [the age of 1] was rare when Westerners came,” she said. “If the baby lived until 1, it meant that they would survive.”
Charles has been planning to wear the Kānaka Maoli flag, or native Hawaiian flag, and her Doc Martens to graduation since the beginning of the year (which meant breaking school rules). She is now expressing herself freely, including dyeing her hair dark purple. “If I’m going out, I’m going extra,” she said with a laugh.
She wants people to remember that “It’s OK to have really bad days. It’s OK to be mad, to be sad.” Yet this is also extra time for extra love, she said.
Charles wants to support Hawaii’s keiki (children) and will be studying social work at a local university in the fall.
Gemalyn Yutob is an extroverted dancer who was once busy with school, friends and the youth dance classes she’d teach prior to quarantine. Now she is using her downtime to bond with her older siblings, virtually explore dance studios throughout the island of Oahu and work on her solo choreography.
“We’re such a small island. Not a lot of big things happen, especially for our youth,” Yutob said, which is why she feels graduation is so important in Hawaii. “At times it can be dark” dealing with COVID-19 and all the abrupt changes it has brought, she said.
Yutob points to her drive-by graduation as a bright spot in the dark. “The environment in my school is the best,” she said. “It’s a way to stay positive and feel like my achievements are still being recognized,” she added. Her school held an alternative ceremony, which she felt was enough for her.
Yutob is the only one in her friend group staying on the island for college and hopes the quarantine will lift before her friends leave. “I don’t want to bend the rules and take chances — but if I have the chance, I would love to see them.”
Yutob will be studying liberal arts and social sciences in the fall and plans to pursue a bachelor’s degree in child therapy.
“Graduation shows me that I did it — and no one can take that away from me,” Gabby Pino said.
Pino is originally from New Mexico and moved to Hawaii in elementary school. She is proud of her Native American heritage and helps keep her native language alive by staying in touch with her New Mexico grandparents. Two of her family members there have died because of COVID-19; Native Americans have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic throughout the Southwest. “We’re all feeling it,” she said.
“I didn’t expect the last two months of senior year to be taken away from me,” Pino said. But she has learned to be more present. “I’ve been taking more time to take care of myself,” she said.
Pino has used her extra time to study for her Advanced Placement psychology exam. She has also been spending more time with her dad and two brothers while her mother continues to work full time as an essential worker.
Pino’s school held an alternative graduation. It felt “like I was still walking across the stage” as she walked down the sidewalk to collect her diploma, she said. She appreciates her teachers and the school’s staff for making that happen for them.
Pino is moving to Rhode Island in the fall to pursue a degree in political science.
To Nainoa Brown-Kahananui, graduation “shows that we fought through 12 years of schooling and actually made it.” Many parents never graduated, so they hope that their kids will get to have that experience.
During high school, Brown-Kahananui’s outgoing nature would shine through in his love of singing, dancing, cheerleading and volleyball. Overall, he described his high school experience as a “roller coaster.”
Brown-Kahananui’s freshman year was particularly rough because he lost his mother: “My mom was my world.” He lost motivation for school and almost dropped out — until one of his friends reached out and encouraged him to push forward for his mom. After that, he got more involved and was determined to graduate for her.
Brown-Kahananui said he never expected to have a drive-by lei ceremony, but his aunty and hānai (informally adopted) mother, Twinkle Borge, and family organized one for him.
As a longtime resident of Puʻuhonua o Waiʻanae — which residents refer to as the largest “houseless village” on Oahu — Brown-Kahananui is part of a tight-knit community that often comes together to help each other. His lei ceremony was one of the best things to come out of this COVID-19 quarantine time, along with “spending time talking to my family members and getting closer than I ever been before,” he said.
Brown-Kahananui missed prom but plans to hold his own alternative prom with friends once social distancing rules are relaxed.
Brown-Kahananui will move to the Big Island of Hawaii in the fall to study psychology.
Sterling Hauki Williams Jr.
Less than a week away from what would have been his school’s traditional ceremony, Sterling Hauki Williams Jr. is still in the dark about what his school will be doing. After contacting his principal and friends in student government, he is unsure if there will be any kind of virtual or socially distanced ceremony for his graduating class. “I don’t know how to feel about it,” he said.
With no formal support in place for island-wide alternative graduations, Williams said he feels like the Department of Education doesn’t care at all. Despite this, he appreciates the time getting closer with his family and friends and how everyone is still figuring out ways to support each other with drive-by grad parties, virtual hangouts and small gatherings.
“We went on break not knowing that was our last goodbyes of high school,” Williams said. But he stressed that he “had, and is still trying to have, the best high school experience.”
Williams is not quite sure what will come next. He was supposed to take part in a youth training program with Hawaiian Airlines, but that has been postponed because of the pandemic. He is concerned about the job market post-COVID-19, but he plans to seek employment at Hawaiian Airlines and work his way up to a flight attendant position.
Calling all HuffPost superfans!
Sign up for membership to become a founding member and help shape HuffPost’s next chapter