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Automotive Mechanics Associate Professor and Division Chair Harold Fujii, right, and Instructor Chris Ibarra, center, lead graduates to receive their diplomas.

Kona auto mechanics students graduate after participating in unique pilot program

Eight Hawai‘i Community College Automotive Mechanics Technology students took the fast lane to graduation as members of an innovative pilot program — the first of its kind in the State of Hawai‘i.

Just one year after high school, these students graduated from the Hawai‘i Community College - Pālamanui campus in Kona on May 14 with Associate of Applied Science (AAS) degrees in Automotive Mechanics Technology (AMT).

They now have college degrees, work experience, and are ready for a job market where there is strong local demand for their skills.

“It was a really great experience,” said Titon Riveira, one of the graduates. “I learned a lot of things, and it woke me up to the automotive world.”

Ken Takeishi, another graduate, said he learned a lot, made great friends, and that graduation is the attainment of a long-held goal.

“It came by really fast,” said Takeishi. “I’m excited though because I finally have a degree from college, and I always dreamed of having a degree from college.”

The graduates were part of the Kealakehe High School Automotive Mechanics Early College Pilot Program, which is a partnership between Hawai‘i P-20 Partnerships in Education, Kealakehe High School, Hawai‘i Community College and Kona automotive businesses.

The program was launched in 2019 to meet the needs of local students and the Kona community. Due to the distance from Hawai‘i CC’s Hilo campus, where the AMT program is based, few students on the west side of Hawai‘i Island enroll in AMT, leading to a shortage of qualified automotive technicians in the Kona area.

“This program is a creative solution that provides West Hawai'i youth with valuable training in a skilled trade while also supporting the needs of local businesses,” said Raynette “Kalei” Haleamau-Kam, Director of Hawai‘i Community College - Pālamanui. “It was truly a community effort. Mahalo to everyone involved.”

Jump start in high school

The AMT Early College program gave these students a jump start on their college degrees while they were in high school. They began earning credits toward their college degrees in 2019 as juniors at KHS; they completed approximately half the degree requirements by the time they graduated from high school in 2021; and this past academic year, they completed their AAS degrees through a combination of work-based learning at Kona automotive shops and classes at the Hawai‘i CC - Pālamanui campus.

Early College classes — which allow high school students to take classes that satisfy requirements for both a high school diploma and a college degree — have become widespread in recent years. What makes the AMT Early College program so unique is that it is Career and Technical Education focused, is cohort-based, and prepares students for specific careers for which there is a demonstrated need in the community.

Hawai‘i CC Chancellor Rachel Solemsaas said the AMT program is part of a growing trend at Hawai‘i CC to offer more Early College CTE programs, in order to support Hawai’i Islandʻs high school seniors’ college and career plans.

“On the initial implementation of Early College, we noticed we were not reaching as many non-college-going high school students as we wanted,” said Solemsaas. “By offering Early College Career and Technical Education programs like Automotive Mechanics Technology to the high schools, we can reach a different population of students, who can see a college pathway is attainable for them, and provide a boost to their college and career journeys.”

In addition to the AMT students, 18 students from Kaʻū High School are receiving certificates in Agriculture from Hawai‘i CC this year. Hawai‘i CC’s Early Childhood Education program has also partnered with local high schools on the Early Learning Career Pathways Project, and there are conversations about adding more Early College pathways in carpentry and the culinary arts.

The ultimate goal, Solemsaas said, is to increase the rate at which Hawai‘i Island high school graduates attend college and improve their career mobility by allowing them to earn degrees and certificates.

Collaboration key to success

The AMT students would not have graduated from Hawai‘i CC without the support of many organizations, including Kona automotive businesses. The initial plan was for the students to complete their degrees in Hilo after graduating from high school, but when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, that was not practical. Kona automotive businesses stepped up to allow students to learn on the job.

Chris Ibarra, a Kealakehe High School and Hawai‘i CC Automotive Mechanics Instructor, said the businesses were essential partners and gave students valuable experience.

“The businesses and relationships we made in the community were a big help, because the students got the full experience of a shop with the hands-on learning and the added pressure that comes with it,” Ibarra said.

The businesses that participated are Kona Trans, Big Island Toyota, Kona Muffler and Auto Repair, Enterprise Rent-a-Car, Budget, 808Collison, Tony Honda, Island Performance and Offroad, and No Limitz Auto Repair LLC. 
The AMT Early College program is continuing, and additional cohorts of Kealakehe High School students have already joined the program.

Funding for the partnership is supported by Hawai‘i Community Foundation, GEAR UP Hawai‘i, the Stupski Foundation, The Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation, Hawai‘i 3R’s and the Ēlama Project.

After Chase Fernandez received his diploma, the graduate gave a big mahalo to everyone involved.

“Thank you, everybody, for your support and trying to get us through this program,” said Fernandez. “I know it wasn’t easy. Much aloha to everyone who helped get us to this point.”