Dinengdeng & Pinakbet

Commencement speaking remarks…

A confession: I kinda dread providing keynote remarks at large gatherings. I’ve heard great speakers—the semi-professional toastmaster-trained ones who seem to enjoy being at the podium and move seamlessly from one thought to another. I generally have to work on it. My other challenge is I actually look at people’s faces while I’m talking and I note their reactions as I’m speaking. So I was nervous when I was asked to provide remarks at the University of Hawaii Maui College (UH-MC) commencement.

Commencement speakers are expected to provide parting words of wisdom and encouragement. I previously provided some remarks at the 2013 commencement ceremonies on stage at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center’s Castle Theater. So here’s generally what I shared with the UH-MC graduates this past May.

You, and your friends and loved ones, have good reason to be proud today. When you come up and receive a token of the degree you’ve earned, you are marking both an end and a beginning.

And tonight you can start a new tradition as you come up to collect your diploma or certificate—give President Lassner or Chancellor Hokoana a tip. One or two bucks to show your appreciation for a job well done, and at a reasonable price.

Some of you may remember when the little towns of Kahului, Waihe‘e, and Waikapü straddled the biggest towns on Maui—Pä‘ia and Pu‘unënë and Wailuku, and the sugar mills that anchored the large sugar plantations that ringed and filled our central valley.

Sugar operations have now ended so we’re in a time of change.

In only four years, Maui’s landscape has changed noticeably—Pu‘unënë Mill’s stacks no longer billow smoke into the air and the sugar cane growing in the central valley goes untended. The most visible crop—judging from Facebook posts are the sunflower fields planted by Pacific Biodiesel.

And the two new recreational parks that have opened at the edge of Maui Lani eventually will be the center of A&B’s Wai‘ale project district. More houses.

If you’re what they call a “traditional college student”—someone who entered UH Maui College right after high school—what you know is only what you’ve experienced growing up over the last two decades. I would guess even those of you who have returned to school after taking some time off from formal education can relate more to your twenty-something year old classmates than old guys like me born in the nineteen-sixties.

If you grew up on Maui over the last twenty years, your cultural touchstones—the common experiences that show you live here—are different from those of my parents and probably myself and my high school classmates. Here’s a somewhat updated cultural list from what I provided four years ago for you to consider—you can ask your parents or your older friends about them later if you don’t get them:

  1. You have never been asked if you wanted beans with your guri guri.
  2. Your Maui County Fairs have always been at the War Memorial sports complex.
  3. Naska has always been called Kanahä.
  4. Your UH football team has always been known as Warriors rather than Rainbows.
  5. The Maui News has always been published seven days a week.
  6. If you live in Central Maui, shopping for groceries means Safeway, Foodland or Costco rather than Noda’s, Ah Fook’s or Ooka’s.
  7. The upcountry high school has always been King Kekaulike rather than Maui High.
  8. Seabury Hall has always had male as well as female students.
  9. You have always had the choice of flying directly to the west coast from Kahului Airport without a Honolulu connection.
  10. Our largest concert venue has always been the Maui Arts and Cultural Center rather than the Lahaina Tennis Stadium.
  11. Krispy Kreme or Maui Specialty Chocolates are what you take as omiyage rather than Shishido manju or Komoda pastries.
  12. Kaho‘olawe or Kanaloa has been a cultural reserve and not a bombing range.
  13. Hawaiian immersion education has always been a choice for you.
My niece Bernadette Bumanglag Gamit—having graduated that evening—and her family, posed for a photograph shown here, following the speech.
Photo courtesy: The Bumanglag Gamit ‘Ohana

What this means is what you take for granted today as normal is subject to change.

The real world is life as you live it. And tonight marks a turning point for you.

So here are a few simple suggestions.
Live in the now.

One of the biggest difference in expectations between my parents’ generation and mine is that they hoped, and planned, and even expected to find work in one company and spend most of their careers in that same company or field. My dad, for example, worked for over forty years for HC&S as a sugar irrigator. The fields outside Pä‘ia that spread towards Baldwin Park were his fields for many years.

You’re entering an even more challenging and connected world that’s dynamic and quickly shifting. So be flexible.
You should be open to opportunities and challenges because change will come even if you’re not ready. Life happens.
Take risks.

Or as we used to say in Pä‘ia, chance ‘em.
Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

You’ve already taken the opportunity to enroll here at UH Maui College and to pursue your chosen field of study.
Use what you’ve learned.

Be optimistic. You deserve to be here today and you’ve earned your degree.

But keep in mind that you’re not and never should be defined by your level of education, or your credentials, or a title, or how much or how little money you’re paid. Your education didn’t stop after high school. Neither will your true education end today.

You’ll find you can pick up something new every day and none of your education will help you if you don’t chance ‘em when you have a learning opportunity.
But if you need directions, ask someone. We don’t get where we are without the support and guidance of other people.

Let me leave you with some notes of caution.

Another cultural touchstone is that Hawai‘i Five-O is the longest running television show filmed locally.

Some of you older students and perhaps people on this stage may know that in my small kid time there was another Hawai‘i Five-O that ran even longer than the current show. Different actors but the same setting—sun, surf, beautiful landscapes, and a lot of crime.

While the world has become closer in many ways through globalization, much of the country and the world still views Hawai‘i as an exotic place, a paradise. And people come to Hawai‘i with romanticized notions about our lifestyle and our people.

It will be a challenge for you who stay here to reconcile our American-style economy with real respect for the authentic host culture.

You will also be operating in a world where your certainty and your sense of injustice can prevent meaningful dialog on many issues. Don’t get me wrong, anger arising from conviction and indignation from principle have their time and place.

At your age, I was sure I knew more than my parents and their generation, and in certain terms, I maybe did. It’s much the same way that my nephews and nieces intuitively know how to use my iPhone better than me.

However, looking back, I did not know better. So try and be better. Be pono even if no one else is.

And whenever you can, put your phone down, and have real conversations with real people. A Washington Post article noted:

“the [employment] skills necessary at the higher echelons will include especially the ability to efficiently network, manage public relations, display intercultural sensitivity… and just enough creativity to think outside the box….”

One of the people interviewed “said people can hone those skills in this digital age by remembering to interact with other people.’… “[T]he most important skills to have in life are gained through interpersonal experiences,” he wrote. “[H]uman bodies in close proximity to other human bodies stimulate real compassion, empathy, vulnerability and social-emotional intelligence.”

New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote a book around the distinction between the resume virtues and the eulogy virtues. As he describes them, “the resume virtues are the ones you bring to the marketplace that make you good at your job. The eulogy virtues are the moral virtues. They are the things they say about you after you are dead—whether you are honest or brave or caring or capable of great love.” Brooks argues that “we all know that the eulogy virtues are more important than the resume virtues, but we live in a society that puts a lot more emphasis on how to build skills than how to build character.” In short, he observed, “a lot of us are clearer on how to be successful than on how to be virtuous.”

Gilbert S.C. Keith-Agaran serves the Central Maui communities in the Hawai‘i State Senate, where he chairs the Judiciary and Labor Committee. Sen. Keith-Agaran graduated from Maui High School and lives in Kahului. He practices commercial, civil and administrative law with Takitani Agaran & Jorgensen, LLLP in Wailuku.

Your sense of self is based on your character. In my own religious tradition, we refer to this notion as the golden rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. When I was growing up, Maui was a great place to live, work, play and raise a family. I came home after college because I believed that. I still do.

So I hope you know that whether you intend to or not, you can play a role in determining whether Maui Nui remains Nö Ka ‘Oi.
But try doing it with some humility and compassion.

Celebrate and share your humanity and your distinctiveness. You’re Americans. Or not. Native Hawaiian. Perhaps Hawai‘i-born. Filipino. Japanese. Chinese. Korean. Some other Asian. Haole. Or hapa.

You are sons and daughters. Brothers and sisters. Mothers and fathers. Friends and lovers. Never forget those blessings.
As you collect your degrees tonight, think about living in community. We live on an island. We are island people. And we are counting on you to keep Maui Nö ka ‘oi.
Mahalo and best wishes for all your challenging tomorrows.