Jonathan Okamura: What I Would Have Said At The UH Manoa Graduation Ceremony - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Author

Jonathan Y. Okamura

Jonathan Okamura is professor emeritus at the University of Hawaii Manoa, where he worked for most of his 35-year academic career, 20 years of which were with the Department of Ethnic Studies. He continues to research, write and lecture on problems and issues concerning race and racism. Opinions are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat’s views. You can reach him by email at

Working as an emergency public school teacher would allow graduates to give back to Hawaii.

On Saturday, thousands of students at the University of Hawaii Manoa received their long-awaited diplomas and celebrated this very joyous occasion with lots of cheering and hugs from their family and friends. 

I’m sure the latter gave them many lei to congratulate them in keeping with a Hawaii tradition, which has spread to many universities in the continental United States.

But before joining their relatives and friends, the graduates had to listen to the obligatory speeches – hopefully inspiring – by the featured speakers. 

Having retired from the university three years ago and because current professors are generally not asked to give commencement addresses, I have since thought about what I would say to graduates if I was asked to speak at a UH Manoa graduation ceremony. 

I think my speech would take off from John F. Kennedy’s well-known presidential inaugural address in 1961 in which he famously declared that Americans should, “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.”

When I graduated from college about 50 years ago with the military draft and the war in Vietnam ongoing, I didn’t have to ask what the United States wanted me to do.

In fact, Uncle Sam informed me in writing.

Shortly after I attended my commencement ceremony, I received a letter from my draft board. It instructed me that, since I no longer was eligible for a student deferment, I had to report on a certain day for a physical examination before possibly being drafted.

My speech to the graduates would have a far more optimistic message.

Instead of America, which Kennedy emphasized, I would urge the graduates to ask themselves what can they do for Hawaii now that they have their college degree. 

I also would not just raise that question for them but would provide them with an answer. That answer would be to use the skills, knowledge and abilities they have acquired while earning their degree to address some of the problems that confront the people of Hawaii. 

Admittedly, this task is easier for some graduates, such as those in nursing or social work than for others whose degrees are in philosophy or accounting. But all of them, I would reassure them, can think of something they can do either directly or indirectly toward alleviating our current circumstances.

Rather than review for them the many critical issues we face in Hawaii, the primary problem that I would encourage the graduates to consider addressing is K-12 public education, particularly the long-term teacher shortage. 

Recent graduates, like these from UH West Oahu’s spring commencement, could help address the island’s teacher shortage.
(Provided: UH West Oahu/2023)

I would tell them what I used to say to my students who were graduating in May. If they don’t have a job lined up, they could have a full-time position a few months later as a public school teacher, even though they don’t have a bachelor’s degree in education.

The reason for the graduates’ possible good fortune is because the Department of Education has been starting the new school year for several decades lacking several hundred teachers. The DOE partial solution to this predicament has been to recruit “emergency hire” teachers.

These instructors are paid less, as they should be, than a beginning licensed teacher with a teaching credential and they receive no holiday, vacation, sick leave, unemployment, or health insurance benefits that other state workers are provided. 

But they do have a professional job befitting a college graduate, and they do contribute to ensuring that our public school students have an instructor in their classroom. In this way, I would emphasize to the graduates, they would be playing a small but significant role in challenging educational inequality in Hawaii. 

Their individual efforts and those of others, I would tell them, are needed because of the continuing underfunding of public education by our state legislature, despite having a $2 billion surplus to allocate this past session. 

To convince the graduates that I’m not recommending something I wouldn’t do myself, I would let them know that I was an emergency hire employee at the state Department of Health for six months after I returned to Hawaii from working in the Philippines and couldn’t obtain an academic job.

I also would inform the graduates of a nonprofit, nationwide organization called Teach For America, which is based in New York City and has an office in Hawaii. Teach For America Hawaii recruits and selects recent college graduates, including those without a degree in education, to teach in K-12 public schools on Oahu and Hawaii island.

Currently, TFA Hawaii teachers, who are DOE employees, are assigned primarily to schools in leeward and central Oahu where the need for educators is very high, and they also serve in schools in Kona.

Waialae Elementary Public Charter school started last week as cars lined up dropping off students.
Regardless of qualification, working as an “emergency hire” teacher is a fitting temporary post for a recent graduate.
(Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021)

As a significant benefit, TFA Hawaii provides their teachers the opportunity to participate in a state-approved and nationally-accredited teacher education program. Upon completing it, they are eligible for licensure as a teacher in Hawaii, generally after the first year of teaching.

For graduates who are undecided about what they will do next—whether to begin a professional career or to attend graduate or professional school—I would recommend that they consider becoming a volunteer at either a public or private organization. 

Public organizations include educational institutions, such as the DOE schools and the University of Hawaii. I would tell the graduates they can provide much needed tutoring assistance to immigrant and other minority students in the public schools, something I did in South Central Los Angeles while an undergraduate.

Given their success at completing their degrees, I would suggest that the graduates inquire about volunteering in UH offices and programs, particularly those that serve underrepresented minority students, and thereby contribute to their graduation. At UH Manoa, these offices include Student Equity, Excellence and Diversity, the Office of Multicultural Student Services, and Native Hawaiian Student Services. 

Private, nonprofit organizations that likely can use volunteers include the Filipino Community Center, the Susannah Wesley Community Center, and the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawaii. These are settings where I had students in my Ethnic Studies courses do volunteer service-learning activities.

In closing my commencement address, I would say to the graduates, “As you think about what you will do next in your life, think also about the lives of Hawaii’s people and what you can do for them, especially those who are less fortunate than yourself. Mahalo nui and congratulations to our graduates and their families.”

Civil Beat’s education reporting is supported by a grant from Chamberlin Family Philanthropy.

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About the Author

Jonathan Y. Okamura

Jonathan Okamura is professor emeritus at the University of Hawaii Manoa, where he worked for most of his 35-year academic career, 20 years of which were with the Department of Ethnic Studies. He continues to research, write and lecture on problems and issues concerning race and racism. 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)

It's a nice thought but asking new graduates who are soaked with debt to take on a poor paying job in a horrible industry that they didn't study for isn't going to be a great success. I think educators need to be passionate about education.The TFA experience relayed to me by my friends seems pretty uniform: felt good to participate but it sucked, and they are glad it's over.

rs84 · 2 weeks ago

Recent college graduates that can't find employment befitting their education and degree is the result of the degree having little to no commercial value. If the graduate was planning for the degree to result in a job, you would think that their planning and the courses the student took would lead to the job i.e., civil engineering degree leads to CE job. My political science degree was totally useless for the job market.

zz · 2 weeks ago

It's about return on investment. We have a university system that generates a certain quality and quantity of degrees, but that's not balanced with our local needs.We NEED physicians, teachers, engineers, and nurses. Sorry, but Journalism, pre-law, and Hawaiian Studies Majors are a "nice to have" at this time.The longer we fail to incentivize and prioritize these more valuable majors, the longer Hawaii will remain dependent on the rest of the country and world for medical skills above changing bedpans, trades above moving dirt around, and teachers who are sufficiently trained, equipped and/or prepared to move Hawaii out of the plantation era.

Shoeter · 2 weeks ago

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