Perseverance to complete degree pays off for UH Hilo returning student

Ten years after first attending UH Hilo, Keren Motonaga returned to triumphantly complete her baccalaureate degree, the first in her family to do so.

Keren Motonaga with lei up to her chin.
Returning student Keren Motonaga, 28, graduated in December with a bachelor of arts in Japanese studies and a minor in linguistics, ten years after she first attended UH Hilo.

Hawaiʻi Island resident Keren Motonaga endured a long journey to become the first person in her family to receive a four-year college degree. She just graduated from the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo in December with a bachelor of arts in Japanese studies and a minor in linguistics, ten years after she first attended UH Hilo.

The statewide UH System is now actively reaching out to former students like Motonaga, referred to as “returning adults” or “stopped out students,” to return and complete their post-secondary degree or certificate. According to the 2017 Hawaiʻi State Data Book, about 94,000 residents aged 24 to 44 years have some college credits but not a degree. UH would like to improve those stats. Learn more.

Case study

Born and raised on Hawaiʻi Island, Motonaga graduated from Kamehameha Schools Hawaiʻi in 2008 and was initially on track to graduate from UH Hilo in five years, while making the most of the opportunities available. She participated in a study abroad program, spending time in South Korea and a year in Japan. She took part in a national student exchange going to school for a semester at the University of Montana.

Then came a series of life challenges that knocked her off track.

“The semester I was supposed to graduate, there was a car accident with me and my mom,” says Motonaga. “Also, there was a period of homelessness and unhealthy personal relationships that got in the way of my schooling.”

While out of school, Motonaga regretted not completing her college degree, knowing it was an unfinished part of her life. “I felt like I wasn’t done, like I wouldn’t be happy with myself if I didn’t finish what I had started. My family was my biggest motivation. No one has graduated in our family with a bachelor’s degree before, so it was a big milestone for me and for them.”

While completing her degree, Motonaga worked at two restaurants in Hilo while balancing her academics. She credits encouragement from her family, friends and church for her success and says her professors really played a big part in helping her graduate.

“They were very understanding that I was a returning adult and they want their students to succeed,” says Motonaga. “I felt that this semester and appreciate them a lot.”

Motonaga is now searching for a job where she can utilize her degree. “It’s been very competitive trying to find a job without one, but now having job experience and education will help change my living situation.”

UH System News.