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Q&A with children’s books author Melissa Iwai

August 20, 2015
  • In Memory of Uncle Nick
Photo Caption: Melissa and her son who was named after her late Uncle Nick (photo by: Denis  Markell)
When New York based writer and illustrator Melissa Iwai’s beloved uncle passed away, she created the Nicholas Nakabayashi Endowment. This fund currently supports the Kapi‘olani Community College Office for Continuing Education and Training Program by funding three English as a Second Language (ESL) courses a year. The courses are free for employees in Hawai‘i’s hospitality industry.

Please tell us about your uncle

Nicholas T. NakabayashiMy uncle, Nicholas T. Nakabayashi, was someone I respected and loved very much.  He was a WWII veteran of the famed 100th Infantry Battalion 442nd Regiment Combat Team. 

One of the things he valued more than anything was education and learning about the world.  He was a scientist, a businessman, and an avid self-taught photographer.  In his later years, he spent his days volunteering at the Waikiki Lifelong Learning Center, which was a part of Kapi’olani Community College, helping students with their English.

In the late 1940s, when my mother was a girl, she dreamed of becoming a nurse, but my grandparents could not afford to send her to nursing school on the mainland.  My uncle, who was in graduate school at the time, managed to scrape together enough funds to send her to nursing school himself.  Thanks to his generosity, she was able to get her RN degree in Chicago and worked as an operating nurse for over 30 years. 

Why did you create this endowment?

In the spirit of my uncle’s enthusiasm for education and learning new skills, I wanted to contribute to an institution that could benefit from a portion of the inheritance he left me when he passed away in 2001.  My uncle Nick would be proud and happy to see that this endowment is still helping students in their studies now – so many years later. 

What do you hope this endowment will accomplish?

I hope the endowment will continue to make available the ESL classes taught at Kapi’olani Community College to prospective students who would like that training and to further their education.

Why do you think it’s important for people to make gifts to universities?

Like my uncle, I have always believed that having an education is one of the most valuable assets in creating a happy and successful life. Unfortunately, unlike in other developed countries, higher education in America comes at a price – more often than not, too steep a price.  Not everyone can afford to go to a university. Especially in the last decade with so many cuts to funding for higher education in this country, it lies on the shoulders of donors to make up the difference. 

Why do you care about ESL?

Even before my uncle became an ESL tutor, I had been interested in the field of language acquisition.  Though I am not certified to teach ESL, I have done research in the field, and I have an M.A. in linguistics.  I also have experience teaching English as a second language in Japan and as a tutor for ESL while I was in graduate school at Stanford University. To become successful in the workforce, it is required that one has a certain mastery of English, so I believe it is a highly valuable skill for non-native speakers of English living in this country to have. 

Do you have any advice for our UH students who have dreams of becoming writers?

I would give the same advice that I have been given, and that is to read as much as you can and write as much as you can.  To hone a skill, you have to practice and put in the hours, whether it is writing, painting, or mastering English.

Parting thoughts

I wish my uncle Nick was somehow able to see how many students this endowment has already helped from the time of its inception in 2002.  He would be so proud and happy to be a part of it.  I hope that it continues to touch many more students in the future.

If you would like to learn how you can support UH students and programs like this, please contact us at 808-956-8700 or send us a message.