Lisa Rapozo, a social worker with Child Welfare Services, was in the Wai‘ale‘ale Project’s first cohort ten years ago. She graduated with an associate’s degree from Kaua‘i Community college, then earned her bachelor’s degree from UH Hilo. Today she’s two semesters away from her master’s degree in social work from UH Mānoa.
How did you hear about Waiʻaleʻale Project?
I received a mass email at work, when I was with the First-to-Work program in the state Department of Human Services. I assisted case managers helping single moms and dads on public assistance to find work. I thought the Waiʻaleʻale Project was meant more for my clients than me, so I deleted the email, but my boss said, “I think this would be a perfect program for you. You talk about going back to school all the time.”
I was really scared. I felt I had missed out. I thought I’d be the oldest one in class and I worried I’d have a hard time. But my boss was always talking about his good times at UH Hilo. I wanted a taste of that too.
He wrote me a referral, and I got in.
What quality is most important for a student’s success in Waiʻaleʻale Project?
First and foremost, be grateful for the opportunity to be a student scholar in the Wai‘ale‘ale Project. You need to be driven, motivated, committed, purposeful, and most of all, passionate. Be passionate in your beliefs, and passionate about your goals.
Have an open mind. Allow everyone to help, the mentors and program. We look for people with hardships or situations, not a normal person with a great life. We just ask you to try it. Share how you feel, be open about it. When you get in, you say, “Wow, someone believes in me and cares about me.” Waiʻaleʻale is like a family, with lots of support and caring. When stuff doesn’t go your way, you may not have answers, but you at least have someone to talk to, to help find solutions.
What obstacles did you overcome in achieving academic success?
Keeping my life balanced is the big obstacle. I’m married, I have two kids, and I work. Money is always an issue. I continue to work to support my family, making sure I have my kids covered. My husband has to handle a bit more when I’m at school at night, so we adjusted roles. It’s a family effort, with everyone contributing.
I don’t fool around with school. It’s serious, but I try to balance everything, including caring for myself. I’ve learned to take breaks, and make sure I’m organized and manage my time so I get it all done. It’s great to have lots of support at home, and support from the project.
Moving forward itself is motivating and humbling. There are mountains and valleys in life, and nobody’s life is perfect. My grandma earned her GED when she was 79! She’s been among my biggest inspirations: if grandma can do it, so can I. She was my focus whenever I felt I couldn’t do it.
Was there a moment when you realized you could do this?
I don’t know why, but I didn’t think I was much, and when I saw my first two As after my first semester, I said, “Wow. I did this.”
I once earned a C and I was devastated, but Kimo Perry, the Waiʻaleʻale Project coordinator, said, “Lisa, a C doesn’t define who you are. It’s one class. So stop crying and move forward.”
When I’m down, I get up quickly and press forward. If I have obstacles, I know what my goal is and keep to that.
What effect did your success have on your children?
My sons were about 12 and 2 years old when I went back to school. My youngest son is eleven now, and already talking about going into culinary studies at Kaua‘i Community College.
They’ve both been exposed to college: they saw me through it all, the crying and pulling my hair out. I was taking a practice test one night and my oldest son Ka‘imi could see that I had something wrong. He explained to me how to do the problem correctly. He helped me with math at home. Today he is in the eighth Wai‘ale‘ale Project cohort, doing really well. I thought I’d have to be on him, but he knows to go to class, to correspond with his professors, and to communicate with everyone.
I knew that Waiʻaleʻale Project would be a really good fit for him.
I’m excited about our goal to graduate at the same time, me from UH Mānoa and him from Kaua‘i CC. Now he’s hoping to get his bachelor’s degree in psychology.