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Wai’ale’ale Project provides chance for Kaua’i, Ni’ihau youth to attend college for free

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Wai‘ale‘ale Project students graduate from Kaua’i Community College in 2022. Photo: Kaua’i Community College

Joana Rodriguez dropped out of high school in 10th grade, became a teen mother and was hooked on drugs.

But now, due in large part to the Waiʻaleʻale Project at Kauaʻi Community College, Rodriguez has turned her life around and now mentors other young people who could use help.

The Waiʻaleʻale Project has helped nearly 1,000 students from Kaua’i and Ni’ihau — who otherwise would not have gone to college — to successfully navigate the college system with financial assistance, counseling and mentorship.

The program is now accepting applications through April 15 for its 14th cohort.

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“It’s a blessing for me to give back what was given to me from my previous mentor,” said Rodriguez, who has been a mentor for six years. “I like sharing my story, and that’s how we connect with our students. It motivates them, by showing them that I’m someone who’s been in their position. I’ve experienced the school and I can provide that support for them.”

  • Wai‘ale‘ale Project students at a welcome event. Photo: Kaua’i Community College
  • Wai‘ale‘ale Project students at a welcome event. Photo: Kaua’i Community College
  • Wai‘ale‘ale Project students at a welcome event. Photo: Kaua’i Community College
  • A Wai‘ale‘ale Project student with interim Kaua’i Community College Chancellor Margaret Sanchez in 2022. Photo: Kaua’i Community College
  • Wai‘ale‘ale Project students graduate from Kaua’i Community College in 2022. Photo: Kaua’i Community College

After dropping out of high school, Rodriguez’ mother convinced her to get her GED and then visit Kaua’i Community College. But at 16, Rodriguez was a year too young to join her preferred program — nursing.

During the year she had to wait, she became pregnant with her son, started using drugs after his birth, and went through a cycle of getting clean and relapsing before becoming pregnant with her daughter and falling into the same cycle.

Rodriguez said towards the end of her addiction, she became very ill and was hospitalized for two months. It was her wake-up call. She checked herself into an outpatient recovery program and that’s where she met her mentor, who helped her apply to the Waiʻaleʻale Project.

Joana Rodriguez dropped tells her story from high school dropout to college graduate, with help of the Waiʻaleʻale Project at Kauaʻi Community College. Screenshot
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“I applied for the scholarship and I thought, who’s going to give money to a recovering addict who’s had three CPS [Child Protective Services] cases, been to jail and is on probation,” Rodriguez said.

But, she was accepted. After her first semester, Rodriquez reclaimed full custody of her children and finished her first year with a 4.0 GPA. She has since received Associates Degrees in Business Technology and Liberal Arts from Kaua‘i Community College. She currently is working on her Psychology Bachelor’s at the University of Hawaii – West Oahu.

“College really played a key role in my recovery … I don’t know what would have happened if I didn’t take this chance and I didn’t take this opportunity,” Rodriguez said. “College gave me a sense of purpose in life.”

She added: “Hearing someone else’s story helped me feel like I’m not the only one that’s like this; there’s someone else like me, and if she can do it (my mentor), then I can do it, too.”

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To apply for the Wai’ale’ale Project, students must be entering their first year of college or returning to college after a gap in their education. It is highly encouraged to submit a referral form with the application. To apply, call 808-245-8383 or email waiale@hawaii.edu.

Applications are due by April 15. More information can be found at https://www.kauai.hawaii.edu/waialeale-project.

The Wai’ale’ale Project is made possible by the generous support from private donors, community partners and philanthropic organizations. To learn how you can contribute to the ongoing development and sustainability of the Wai’ale’ale Project, contact Christina Ahia Trugillo at cahia@hawaii.edu or call 808-245-0105.

Learn more about KCC at www.kauai.hawaii.edu

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