Pālamanui Drive-Through Graduates Roar into Their Futures on Saturday

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PC: Tom Hasslinger/Big Island Now

Hawai‘i Community College – Pālamanui celebrated graduation on Saturday, May 14 in drive-though fashion, where some of the cars and truck beds were as decorated as the departing students.

The event was one of nine graduations at University of Hawai‘i HCC campuses across the state over the weekend, but the rev of engines at the leeward campus ceremony was fitting, as the 2022 graduating class included eight automotive mechanic graduates who were members of a unique pilot project with the college, Hawaii P-20 and Kealakehe High School.

Their commencement Saturday morning marked the first ever cohort of automotive mechanics grads from Kona.

“I dreamed about this day for three years,” Raynette “Kalei” Haleamau-Kam, director of Pālamanui, told the automotive students before they took their diplomas and flipped their tassels. “Three years and you kids are here.”


The students started taking dual credit automotive mechanics classes three years ago as juniors at Kealakehe High School. By the time they graduated from Kealakehe last year, they had already completed half of the associates degree in automotive mechanics from HCC.

While dual credit is common, the pilot program is unique because it is a career and technical education and leads the students to a career-oriented associate degree. This past year, they completed their degrees through work-based learning at Kona area automotive shops as part of the program.

Automotive graduates pose for pictures next to their cars on Saturday at the Pālamanui campus.

“It feels good, finally, to finish what we started three years ago,” Chase Fernandez, 18, one of the automotive grads said following the ceremony. 

Fernandez said he never envisioned ever graduating, he just focused on one day at a time as he was going through all the work and training. But the big day finally did arrive, and Fernandez offered his appreciation to all the people who helped him and his classmates get to where they were standing on Saturday.


“Thank you everybody for your support for trying to get us through this program,” he said. “I know it wasn’t easy, just much alohas to everybody who got us to this point.”

The ceremony took place on the campus’s main parking lot. Cars drove through in single-file line, slowly, just like in a parade, to the front podium set up near the buildings. The cap-and-gown-adorned graduate got out of the car and walked to the podium to receive their diploma from chancellor Rachel Solemsaas. Then they posed for photos with friends and family, got back in their cars, and drove away while spectators cheered from seats set up in what otherwise would be parking spots.

“It feels weird, but good at the same time,” said graduate Ken Takeishi about the ceremony, as well as the attention that comes with it.

Family helped guide him to the automotive program, which he said he was glad he followed. He works as a mechanic now, which he said he never thought would be the case before he started his journey, and he will continue working as one.


“Thank you for being so supportive, you guys are awesome,” he said about his family.

“I never thought of being a mechanic,” he added. “I feel good now.”

The automotive program was developed to meet the needs of West Hawai‘i students and the local automotive industry. Due to the distance from HCC’s Hilo campus, where the AMT program is based, few students on the west side of Hawai‘i Island ever enrolled, leading to a shortage of qualified automotive technicians in the area, school officials stated.

The work-based learning businesses  that took part in the program were Kona Trans; Big Island Toyota; Kona Muffler and Auto Repair; Enterprise; Budget; 808Collison; Tony Honda; Island Performance and Offroad; and No Limitz Auto Repair LLC.

Statewide, more than 4,000 students graduated from UH-HCC this weekend, including in Hilo.

Tom Hasslinger
Tom Hasslinger is a journalist who lives in Kailua-Kona. Prior to joining Big Island Now, he worked as the managing editor for West Hawaii Today and deputy editor for The Garden Island newspaper on Kauai. He's worked for over 15 years as a reporter for the Oahu-based Civil Beat news outlet, as well as in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho and Douglas Wyoming.
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