Hawai‘i Community College offers chance to try year of school — for free

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As 42-year-old salon owner Iesha Henderson watched her friend graduate from Hawaiʻi Community College in Hilo last year, she decided at that moment it was time to return to school.

Two decades earlier, she had dreamed of going to college, but her plans abruptly changed when her mother was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. She stayed home to take care of her. Along the way, Henderson became a wife and mother of three.

Iesha Henderson makes a kihei (a cape) from a fern plant for her Hawaiian Studies Course at Hawai‘i Community College. (Photo courtesy: Iesha Henderson)

But five years ago, before she died, Henderson’s mother made her promise she’d go back to school and get a degree. Henderson wondered: “How do you go back after 20 years?”

Now, the Volcano resident is almost done year one in pursuit of a bachelor’s degree in business. She made it happen with the help of Hawaiʻi Community College’s Ēlama and Hilo One scholarship programs — which provides one year of free community college to young people or older adults with “compelling barriers.”

To qualify for the scholarship, a person must be a first-generation college student (have taken less than 12 credit hours) and have financial challenges, be unemployed or work a complex schedule. The person must also be accepted to either the community college’s Hilo campus or Pālamanui campus in Kona.

This one-time scholarship covers a full year of tuition — up to 12 credits per semester — fees, books and other educational expenses. It also provides mentorship and academic resources.


The Ēlama program started in 2015 for students at the Kona campus. The name Ēlama comes from the Hawaiian word lama, a species of rare and ancient trees that are around the Pālamanui campus. The tree’s dark wood was once used to build temples and was placed on altars for enlightenment.

Because of the Ēlama program’s success, a similar program was set up in 2017 at the East Hawai’i campus called Hilo One, the makai area of the town where there once was a central marketplace where people exchanged goods to support each other.

“Our goal is for students to consider Hawai’i Community College their own Hilo One, a nexus where ideas, knowledge and support are exchanged, leading to enlightenment and prosperity,” according to the programs’ website.

Both programs are based on the number of credits a student is taking, with a potential savings of up to $4,160 in tuition and fees.

This past year, the community college awarded 49 scholarships between its two Big Island campuses.


The programs have been funded by more than $500,000 in donations from the Oak Foundation, Kūkʻio Foundation, Takitani Foundation, the Dorrance Foundation of North Kohala and other supporters.

Henderson learned about the scholarship opportunity last August during the application process. After being awarded the financial help, she said: “That made it very real for me, and now I’m finishing my first year as a freshman.”

The scholarship provides students who might not go otherwise a taste of college, inspiring them to continue and get a degree.

“We wanted to get them access to higher education,” said Kanaloa Ducosin, the program’s coordinator.

In turn, the recipients of the scholarships “inspire other previously non-degree-seeking students to invest in their own potential,” Ducosin said.


Many of the recipients make the Dean’s List.

Although the scholarship only is available for the first year, there are other financial aid and scholarship opportunities for the students who do continue.

Henderson said the scholarship program is more than just financial help.

“They overload you with so much help and encouragement,” she said. “I just don’t have any fear. The first year gave me such a boost of confidence that I can see myself graduating.”

Ultimately, the education will help the scholarship recipients secure higher-paying jobs and be able to maintain quality employment.

Henderson, who is attending school online, said she is doing homework with her three kids, ages 16, 15 and 10. They all motivate each other. She will be graduating with her associate’s degree just as her oldest daughter graduates from high school. She is on track to graduate with her bachelor’s degree by the time her youngest son graduates from high school.

Henderson plans to transfer to UH at Mānoa to obtain her bachelor’s in business to help her run her salon. She said: “It’s a beautiful thing that no matter how old you are, dreams come true if you don’t stop dreaming.”

To apply for the scholarship, click here.

Applicants must fill out an application; provide a letter of recommendation from a professional or community member who knows them well; provide information about their barriers/challenges; and attest to their dedication to the educational process.

Documents must be completed and submitted by the priority scholarship deadline of May 22. Late applications may be accepted and considered if funds are available.

Eligibility for the program is limited to Hawaiʻi Island Residents who:

  • Receives acceptance to Hawaiʻi Community College and qualifies for resident tuition.
  • Cannot attend college without this scholarship.
  • Has no previous or minimal college experience (Less than 12 credits).
  • Has a strong recommendation from a professional or community member.
Tiffany DeMasters
Tiffany DeMasters is a full-time reporter for Pacific Media Group. Tiffany worked as the cops and courts reporter for West Hawaii Today from 2017 to 2019. She also contributed stories to Ke Ola Magazine and Honolulu Civil Beat.

Tiffany can be reached at [email protected].
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