Every generation looks over its shoulder at the one gaining on it and thinks the whippersnappers will take the world to hell in a hand basket.

This assumption is easily disproved at celebrations like the University of Hawaii Maui College’s graduation last Thursday in Kahului, where 780 joyous students received degrees and certificates in the presence of jubilant (and relieved) family, friends, teachers and supporters. My husband and I were invited by graduates we’d mentored — and loved — since they were youngsters.

Four graduates offered to share with Civil Beat excerpts from their capstone projects at UHMC’s sustainable science management program, which bridged their academic achievement with their future professional lives.

Pali O’Connell, Gordean Kakalia, Kate Cheney, Dwight Baldwin celebrate after graduating from UH-Maui College’s sustainable science program.

Courtesy of Dwight Baldwin

Here’s a look at their work and ambitions for Maui’s future:

PALI O’CONNELL, 29, of Kipahulu, took 12 years of on-again, off-again academic study to earn her bachelor’s degree in sustainable science management.

After two years at the University of British Columbia, she dropped out to work her way around the world as a woofer (http://wwoof.net/)  on sheep farms, a cattle ranch and vineyards, as well as working at music festivals and bartending in Scotland.

Pali O’Connell

Returning to Maui four years ago, O’Connell discovered that UHMC’s sustainability program “seemed like the perfect fit for me. I wanted to use science to solve common community problems we face while still staying true to my values growing up off the grid.”

She earned scholarships and worked part-time, guiding hikers and bartending at the Maui Arts and Cultural Center to pay for her education while also becoming involved in community gardening projects.

Her parents, Patrick and Patricia O’Connell, met on Maui in 1984 and bought land in Kipahulu to raise Pali and her brother Dege. The O’Connell ohana owns Kipahulu Construction Co., and the family still grows most of its own food.

O’Connell’s academic focus is on Maui’s urban sprawl and the impacts of unchecked growth on issues like affordable housing, waste management and use of limited resources.

“I’ve heard numerous times ‘we don’t want to end up like Oahu,’” she said. “So this is where I can make the biggest impact for change and what I feel most passionate about.”

Among 10 “smart growth” measures she proposes are walkable communities, more open land, multi-use buildings, dense construction, and a strong sense of place.

O’Connell discovered common cause among the nine other students in her sustainable science management classes.

GORDEAN KAKALIA, 57, believes that Hawaii’s indigenous peoples’ historic relationship with the natural world should be combined with scientific information to help local communities “make better decisions about the environment, economic growth and social well-being.

“I want to help Maui change how we look at resources from a Native Hawaiian perspective,”  said Kakalia, an Air Force veteran who was raised in Maui and is of Native Hawaiian and Portuguese heritage.

Gordean Kakalia

Kakalia holds an Associate in Arts degree with an emphasis on Hawaiian language from Kauai Community College. Her goal is to bring Native Hawaiians and their land practices deeper into the sustainability conversation. She believes results of surveys designed for specifically for Native Hawaiians should be incorporated into data used by local communities to implement sustainable growth.

Kakalia persevered to become the third person in her immediate family to graduate from college, despite the deaths this year of her disabled son, Wadell Davis, and her mother.

“Before I could attend I had to help put my (two daughters) through school first,” she said. “I took out parent loans to help my kids pay for college, and I worked a lot. At 51, I started my college career. I was a single mom with a lot of hope. I attended college working fulltime and received scholarships as well. Without those it would have been impossible. It took me seven years… but I did it.”

This fall, Kakalia begins Arizona State University’s two-year online master’s program in sustainability leadership. She said the program “…will allow me to stay home on Maui where I am caretaking my dad, who is 82 years old.”

DWIGHT BALDWIN, 26, of Kula, used a Ka Hikina O Ka La scholarship and worked as a Maui County water department intern, then an independent contractor, during six years of study to earn his degree. His passion is learning about Maui’s water resources, particularly East Maui’s stream diversion ditch system built by his ancestors.

Under an agreement with King David Kalakaua’s government in 1876, Alexander & Baldwin Co., constructed a 17-mile ditch to carry water from rain forest streams across steep volcanic canyons to reach the sugar plantation on Maui’s arid central plain. The two-year project’s overseer was non-engineer Henry Perrine Baldwin, who’d lost an arm in an industrial accident at the Palihuli sugar mill.

Dwight Baldwin

Courtesy of Dwight Baldwin

“I’m directly descended from the same Baldwin family that founded A&B,” said student Baldwin. “I grew up hearing the story of my one-armed great-great-grandfather who climbed down those valleys building the Hamakua ditch.”

“But I never heard of the dry streams left behind, the O’opu and Hihiwai dying in puddles, the dry lo’i kalo, and most importantly, the unmet kuleana appurtenant rights held from Kingdom (of Hawaii) days.”

Dwight Baldwin’s project modeled an East Maui stream to create “a somewhat accurate steady state groundwater flow model.” But he said understanding interactions between diversions and groundwater will take more study when he’s older and much more qualified.”

“Water resources are for so much more than drinking,” he said. “Water supports our agriculture and industry but also interacts with our coastal ecosystems, fisheries and forests. It is held in trust by law for all the people of Hawaii.

“That goes doubly so for those who have had their rightful claims overlooked,” Baldwin said.

KATE CHENEY, who grew up in Seattle and lives in Wailuku, spent nine years earning a degree in integrated studies at Cascadia Community College in Bothell, Wa., and her UH-MC sustainable science management diploma. She held a full-time job for seven of those years, going half-time in 2015 when she became an intern at Pacific Biodiesel Co. on Maui.

“I studied psychology for two years… but I wanted to find a career where I was able to make the world a better place,” said Cheney, 26. “I chose the SSM degree because it …focused on critical thinking to find solutions for unsustainable problems.”


Kate Cheney

“I love learning about …  how humans can live within the means of natural systems,” said Cheney. “I am an environmentalist, but through this degree I have also become a businesswoman and humanist.”

“Maui is an amazing place to learn about sustainability (because) we are especially vulnerable to climate change impacts, economic fluctuations, and to see a quick response to social and environmental changes made locally.”

Cheney’s capstone project investigated underwater injection wells and alternatives for wastewater discharge that harms marine ecosystems, degrades coral reefs and can contaminate Maui’s fresh water supply.

“Water is the source of all life and our world’s most precious resource… natural systems like wetlands, fungal-assisted algal fluctuation, and biofuel irrigation are all ways Maui” could alternatively discharge wastewater, Cheney said. She said recovered wastewater used by local industries, agriculture and landscaping improves Maui’s economy and quality of life.

Cheney is applying to law schools because “I could have a large effect on the world by practicing law. I want to fight the system from within, and have felt a very strong motivation due to the current federal administration.”

This year’s 10 graduates in sustainable science management “really aren’t fazed by … learning on the cutting edge, they naturally run with it, applying class concepts to issues they care about,” said Tim Botkin, program director. “Without even realizing it, they are turning people’s heads, causing lots of ‘I didn’t know that!’

“These graduates are definitely Maui’s future, and I think Maui will be a place others look to because of them.”


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