Naka Nathaniel: Don’t Force Your Expectations On Kids. Provide Opportunities Instead - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Author

Naka Nathaniel

Naka Nathaniel spent much of his career as a journalist with The New York Times, helping launch, covering war in Iraq and Afghanistan and the collapse of the second tower on 9/11. He lives in Waimea on the Big Island. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views. You can reach him by email at

Let’s find a better way to help graduating teens navigate whatever may come next.

I’m not inclined to be a confessional writer. Primarily, it’s because I don’t think I have anything truly interesting to atone for. However, I should say that I’m guilty of enforcing the expectations we have for young people and keeping them on paths that aren’t right for them. 

Earlier this year, I was asked to speak to Gisele Bisch, a Kamehameha-Kapalama graduate who was studying at Princeton. She was on the fence about returning home to Hawaii or remaining in New Jersey.

She is a talented writer who was sharing her perspectives through her columns in the Daily Princetonian.

My encouragement to her was based on the 20th century game plan of digging in, working hard, graduating and then heading off into the world to make it as an individual. I told her that Princeton was a great “brand name” school and that brands, labels and credentials mattered. And that the shinier the credential, the better off she would be. 

Looking back, I was wrong.

I apologized to her for enforcing outdated expectations. 

Gisele explained that her difficult decision was complicated by “the thought of, well, there’s not a lot of kids that have the same opportunities as me, and not a lot of people from Hawaii have the opportunity to go to Princeton, of all schools. So I feel like a lot of it is connected to a sense of obligation you have to your home.”

I’m sharing my misstep in hopes of helping other adults not make my faux pas. 

As spring breaks wrap up, it’s now the time when seniors in high school and college are faced with the decisions of what, and where, comes next. It’s a daunting moment and the tyranny of choice can be crippling.

Graduation ceremony University of Hawaii. 16 may 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
The question of whether to stay or leave Hawaii is huge. Adults need to be better listeners when counseling kids on this decision. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2015)

As adults who have already lived through our experiences we can’t help but give advice. However, I’m not sure our advice comes with enough compassion for the situation these kids are facing. This generation of high schoolers and collegians were dealt a tough hand with the pandemic. Sadly, they didn’t get to experience all of the activities that normally come with school.

Now they’re facing choices in a context that none of us who graduated in the 20th and early 21st century can fully comprehend.

The choice to stay in Hawaii or go to the continent has always been a stark decision. Not to overstate the obvious, but if you go, the shock to the system is unavoidable. 

“I’ve had this conversation with other kids who are in college about why do so many people in Hawaii have this perspective that going to the mainland is more valuable than being in Hawaii and continuing your higher education journey or your career in Hawaii?” said Gisele.

I admitted that the people like me weren’t helping. I’ve always been one to encourage wanderlust and venturing. 

As a young kid growing up on an island, my favorite book was the big blue National Geographic atlas. I would spend hours poring over the oversized maps, imagining what it would be like to visit these places. 

When I was given the opportunity of free time, a car and gas money, I took off to explore. This put me on a path to a journalism career that had me working in more countries than there are states in the U.S. I got to see those maps in real life. 

That’s what I wanted to do and that’s what worked for me. However, we all have our own dreams and desires and, as adults counseling these kids, we need to be better listeners and full of more grace and compassion for those that don’t have the desire to depart.

The expectation that one has to leave to be fulfilled needs to retired.

We need to provide opportunities and not expectations.

One of those opportunities needs to be the possibility for kids from Hawaii to remain, root and grow a career and a life in Hawaii. The expectation that one has to leave to be fulfilled needs to retired.

“I feel like when I was in high school, I had the perspective of there’s so much more better things out there,” Gisele said. “If I leave and if I go to the mainland, I probably have more resources and it’d be a much more valuable experience for me instead of just staying home. So that was basically the mindset that I had going into applying for colleges and ultimately choosing to go to Princeton. But I feel like being in the mainland has made me realize just how valuable it is for people to have that opportunity to stay home and what it means to stay in Hawaii if you have the resources and the home to do so.”

The traditional road to success has turned into an infinite number of forks in the road. We’ve seen the traditional pathway become achingly expensive. The automatic notion of academic success leading to career success has been upended. And, we understand that career success is not a guarantee for happiness and personal fulfillment. 

“I feel like a lot of people don’t really realize that for Native Hawaiians specifically, that some people have a cultural connection to Hawaii where you can’t just uproot yourself and move somewhere else and expect to have that same connection to your identity and your culture and have that ability to navigate the world with a strong connection to your identity if you’re Native Hawaiian,” she said. “And for me, I felt like there was a strong value in me coming back, even if it’s just for a little while to strengthen that connection.”

If a kid decides the opportunity to travel and go to school outside of Hawaii is their best choice, then they should be encouraged to explore. And if kids decide to remain, then they should be nurtured and encouraged to sink deep roots. 

Beyond Gisele, I’ve done a number of interviews around this notion of expectations, so this is the first in a mini series of columns. I’d like to figure out how we can give the best counsel to kids on the precipice of what, and where, comes next.

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About the Author

Naka Nathaniel

Naka Nathaniel spent much of his career as a journalist with The New York Times, helping launch, covering war in Iraq and Afghanistan and the collapse of the second tower on 9/11. He lives in Waimea on the Big Island. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views. You can reach him by email at

Latest Comments (0)

The exact same questions are raised on the mainland in various communities.Being geographically separated and segregated is easily recognized because of Hawaii is literally the most isolated archipelago in the world. However…Metaphorically speaking (as well as geographically speaking), any place can be an "island." There are so many communities on the mainland where the young adults leave… for college; for warmer (or colder) weather; for new experiences; for a "better" life; for whatever reason.Most residents in Hawaii don’t realize how horrific the Department of Education is; spend time on the mainland, and they will understand how the Board of Education is an abject failure here...Some residents don’t understand that a "living wage" is something one works TOWARD… it’s rarely something a first, second, or third "job" provides. Spending time on the mainland provides a different perspective.Much like childless parents who claim that "having a pet is a lot like having kids," people who have never invested portions of their lives elsewhere are providing a false analogy if they attempt to speak authoritatively on this topic.

AlohaOne · 1 month ago

Thank you, I enjoyed this! · 1 month ago

When the only real areas of advancement are 1) work in the tourism industry, 2) join the military, or 3) work as a military contractor, there is not a whole lot of appeal for youngsters to stay in Hawaii. Not to mention the pervasive work culture of seniority trumping over any other metric such as merit. This seriously discourages fresh graduates from really exploring and trying hard to excel in their pathways because they know they won't get that promotion because someone has been in that position for 10-20+ years. It's no wonder fresh graduates looking to start their careers see many industries in Hawaii as stagnant or dead ends.

WhoDisGai · 1 month ago

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