Willy Kauai

Armed with a Shaka, Willy Kauai is discovering Hawaiian history around the world and creating it back home.

When Willy Kauai took the position as the second ever director of the Native Hawaiian Student Services five years ago, his mission was clear: “Opening this university up for Hawaiian students.” 

One area he found lacking Native Hawaiian representation was the study abroad program. In response, he helped launch a program that took a cohort of primarily Native Hawaiian students to Europe, but he did it the old-fashioned way. 

The program was based on the Education of Hawaiian Youths Abroad program, which King Kalakaua created in 1880. The original program brought 17 men and one woman to six different countries in Europe to become the “future leaders” of Hawai‘i. 

“What we’re doing today in higher education is very similar to what our ancestors were doing,” he said. 

Since 2018, the Hawaiian Youths Abroad has returned to three of those original countries — Italy, France and England — to chronicle the impacts these students made abroad. 

“There’s a large footprint of Hawaiians traveling throughout Europe,” Kauai said. 

Tracing these footprints led them to museums, national archives and repositories. One story they found was of Matthew Makalua, the first ever doctor of Hawaiian decent to get a western training and who never claimed American citizenship because the overthrow happened while he was abroad. They even discovered embassies where diplomats of the Hawaiian Kingdom once held a seat.

But at home, Kauai felt like the campus itself has very little evidence of the impacts Native Hawaiians had on the university. “There’s very few places in which you have Hawaiian identity reflected in the physical space,” he said.  

He noticed that almost every building on campus that features a Hawaiian name is either a place where you eat or sleep — referring to the dorms and dining halls — but very few places where you learn. 

His next mission is to change that.  

Kauai’s first project is already underway; to renovate a pavilion in the QLC to feature a memorial to Queen Liliuokalani. The project is set to feature a plaque that provides a history of who she was and what she stood for.

Kauai is also lobbying to name the new Life Sciences Building after a Native Hawaiian who has made their name on the campus. 

Isabella Abbott, one of his leading candidates for the name, was a pioneer in marine botany and of Hawaiian descent. She created the undergraduate major of ethnobotany at UH and authored “Marine Algae of California,” winning the highest award in marine botany and becoming the first minority to teach at Stanford. 

“There’s a prospective Hawaiian student out there that could see themselves in a professor like Abbot,” he said.

Staff Writer

Nathan Bek is a student at the UH Shidler College of Business and an intern writer at Hawaii Business Magazine. His favorite stories are about entrepreneurship and innovation.