As an administrator, it’s easy to get caught up in daily challenges, especially now as we try to work through COVID-19. That’s why it’s great to find a story that serves as an important reminder of our mission and why we do what we do.

That’s the case with the story of Kealaka’i “Ala” Matsumoto. Ala is a 2011 Hawai‘i Community College alumnus who is now enrolled at the Iowa State University College of Veterinary Medicine, one of the most prestigious vet schools in the country.

“Hopefully my success can inspire local kids to dream big,” Matsumoto said recently. “I grew up low-income, from a broken home, and without any college-educated family members but still pursued my dreams. Top that off by being of mixed minority background and it seems the cards were stacked against me, yet here I am: the only Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander in the oldest public veterinary school in the country. I would love to see more Native Hawaiian representation within the Hawai‘i medical field as a whole. We can be doctors, but we too often believe it’s beyond our reach.”

Even Ala is sometimes surprised to be where he is; he was an underachieving high school student who chose the beach over the books. Hawai‘i Community College, however, was an important turning point where he found more purpose in academic work and gained confidence.

“Going through the classes, especially when I got to the practicum levels, it clicked: ‘You know, I’m good at this college thing,’” Ala recalls. “I was on the dean’s list, which surprised me. I felt very accomplished.”

He earned an associate of arts in Liberal Arts and a certificate in Human Services from Hawai’i CC, credentials that prepared him to transfer to the University of Hawai’i at Hilo to earn a bachelor’s degree. Just as he was entering UH Hilo, however, and getting ready to double major in psychology and sociology, came a surprising twist. His puppy was injured, and a trip to the vet made him want to become a vet.

At UH Hilo, he joined a pre-veterinary bachelor’s program with a biology minor, and he graduated from UH Hilo in 2016. A couple years after graduating from UH Hilo, he applied to veterinary schools and got in.

After he graduates with his doctorate, he plans to return to Hilo and contribute to this community.

Keep up the great work, Ala, and mahalo for reminding us of the power of education and the important role community colleges play.

Liberal Arts as a Path to Success

Ala’s major, Liberal Arts, is the most popular degree program at Hawai‘i Community College. There are 862 Liberal Arts majors out of 2,430 students. But people often wonder what the degree is and what it offers? The answer is: so many things, which is one reason it’s hard to describe.

It gives students a well-rounded associate degree that fulfills general education requirements of a bachelor’s degree, allowing them to transfer to four-year universities when they graduate. Beyond certain core requirements, they are given the chance to explore a wide range of subjects – science, art, geography, Hawaiian studies, to name a few. Often they don’t know what bachelor’s degree or career they want, so they explore with us, find their strengths and their interests, and then they transfer prepared to succeed. It also provides those “soft skills” that employees value highly.

Recently we added more focused concentrations in liberal arts that allow students to earn a  Liberal Arts degree focused on psychology, sociology, art, administration of justice and more, so their path to four-year universities is clearer.

Take it from Ala, who is grateful for the lower tuition, open access admissions, smaller classes, and great professors he experienced as a Liberal Arts major.

“I push it all the way,” he said. “I tell all the seniors I know if they are planning on going to college, start off at the community college.”


Chancellor Rachel Solemsaas