Milk costs six bucks a gallon. The median price of a house on Oahu is more than $700,000. Jobs that pay a comfortable living wage are in short supply.

Kristian McDonald, a recent graduate from the University of Hawaii Manoa, concedes Hawaii might be a “dismal” place to build a career. But McDonald, who grew up on Oahu, intends to stay.

“Hawaii’s given me so much,” said McDonald, who is now in a master’s program in the Department of Geology and Geophysics studying coastal erosion. “I wouldn’t want to leave here, especially studying something like climate change inevitability. I feel like Hawaii is in a hot spot for that and it’s much needed.”

He’s not alone in his sentiments. The vast majority of UH grads who grew up in the islands and have family here are apt to remain in Hawaii after earning their degree.

‘This is dedicated to to family and friends’ on a undergrad hat during commencement ceremony. 16 april 2015. photograph by Cory Lum/Civil Beat
About 2,000 students are expected to participate in graduation ceremonies at UH Manoa on Saturday. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Among alumni from the last 10 graduating classes for all University of Hawaii campuses, 81 percent still reside in Hawaii, and 83 percent of graduates from the last five years live in the state, according to data from the the University of Hawaii Foundation.

Vance Roley, dean of the Shidler College of Business at UH Manoa, said local students tend to be more readily accepting of the high cost of living compared to their out-of-state peers. Paying $6 for a gallon of milk, for example, isn’t quite so offensive if you’re not used to paying $3.50 for the same product on the mainland.

“They’ve got to figure out some way where they can start out early in their careers and manage to afford to live here. But they do,” said Roley. “It could be a horrendous commute. There (are) options, they’re not great, but those are the choices.”

Many local students can depend on nearby family for financial and emotional support. And they might be drawn to stay by cultural connections.

“Those ties are really important,” said Denise Konan, dean of the College of Social Sciences at UH Manoa.

The College of Social Sciences is one of the largest colleges in the UH system, and 56 percent of its graduates still live in Hawaii, according to data from the college.

“They’ve had experiences, professional experiences, here,” Konan said. “They’re connected with their family network and maybe even have responsibilities in the home.”

Keep The Best Students From Hawaii In Hawaii

Still, many worry that a “brain drain” exodus of trained professionals and top students in search of better opportunities elsewhere leads to a lack of leadership and a skilled workforce in the islands.

We Asked Six University Of Hawaii At Manoa Graduates What Their Plans Are After Graduation

The College of Engineering is the third largest college at UH Manoa. Nearly two-thirds of engineering students study mechanical or civil engineering. Among graduates in those fields, most stay in Hawaii and go into construction, consulting, Department of Defense work or other government jobs, according to H. Ronald Riggs, the college’s interim dean.

But about half of UH Manoa’s computer and electronic engineering undergraduate students take jobs in West Coast cities with booming technology industries. Riggs is hopeful that Hawaii’s economy will diversify to include more information technology jobs.

“We’re trying to support that by providing a trained work force,” he said.

A number of deans at UH Manoa have made it their goal to train a workforce for Hawaii.

“We’re trying to keep the best students from Hawaii in Hawaii,” said Roley of the Shidler College of Business.

From 10 to 15 percent of graduates from the business school move to the mainland, which is about as many students as the college recruits from other states, he said.

If a brain drain is occurring, Roley said it’s most pervasive when local high school graduates leave the state for college and remain there after they graduate.

Data supports his claim: More than twice the number of people ages 18 and 19 move to the mainland from Hawaii than move to the islands from the mainland.

Local accounting and marketing firms, banks, and insurance companies have provided a steady stream of job opportunities for recent graduates from UH’s Shidler College of Business, Roley said.

Once she graduates with with a degree in finance from the School of Business, Kelli-Anne Katsuda plans to start work at Bank of Hawaii. 

“I can’t see myself living anywhere else,” said Katsuda, who grew up on Oahu.

Mid-Pacific Institute graduate and UH Manoa senior Kelli-Anne Katsuda says it’s more difficult for her friends from the mainland to settle down here. Anthony Quintano/ Civil Beat

Certain fields of studies offer more job opportunities than others. Art and humanities majors can make it in Hawaii. However, if their ideal job is to work as a fine artist or professor, they might need to compromise those career goals and settle for side jobs in order to afford the cost of living in Hawaii.

“If you’re a fine artist, it’s nearly impossible to make it anywhere, but here is particularly bad,” said Gaye Chan, chair of the UH Department of Art and Art History.

Local museums including the Bishop Museum, the Shangri La and the Honolulu Museum of Art are fully populated with alumni of the University of Hawaii’s art department, she said.

Museum jobs are limited, but wedding photography and filming is a tap that never runs dry.

“In Hawaii, that’s the big game in town,” Chan said.

Pull Strings And Find A Niche

Hawaii’s unique culture attracts people, and finding a niche area to study and work can help students stand out in a competitive job market.

Graduating senior Aaron Falaniko feels Hawaii is the ideal place to put down roots because he’s interested in social justice issues in Pacific Islander communities.

Falaniko grew up in Seattle, but said his Samoan ancestry gives him a special connection to the island culture found in Hawaii. After receiving his political science degree from UH Manoa, Falaniko hopes to attend the UH Richardson School of Law.

Falaniko said it helps to have an aunt and uncle in Honolulu. He plans to live with them if he attends law school in Hawaii.

“I like the opportunities at this law school to learn about Native Hawaiian law and indigenous law,” he said. “It’s unique to Hawaii.”

University of Hawaii diploma holders ready for the 2017 graduation. Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat

But Gavin Zirbel, who is graduating with a degree in geology, plans to return to his home state of California after receiving his diploma.

“Here (in Hawaii) it’s super big if you want to study volcanology,” Zirbel said. But Zirbel plans to study seismology — earthquakes — rather than volcanoes. 

His academic interests and the family support he receives in California, he said, make the Golden State a better choice for him. For Zirbel, family provides more than just financial support.

“It helps with whenever you’re down or you need someone to talk to because they’ve been through decisions,” he said.  

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