In his 12 years as a counselor at Waianae High School, Shane Nakamura never heard of any student getting into an Ivy League university, let alone even applying to one.
So when Harvard University accepted Kahunui Foster, Nakamura felt like he and all of Waianae — one of Hawaii’s poorest communities — gained acceptance into the prestigious institution, too.
"This is huge," he said. "We are all kind of blown away."
Foster, 18, will be the first from Waianae High to attend Harvard since 1980, according to the college’s registrar’s office.
Foster graduated Friday night at the oceanfront school with a 4.0 grade point average, as one of 11 valedictorians and as the graduation’s master of ceremonies.
The high school hovers near the bottom of the state Department of Education’s performance classification list. Last year’s college enrollment rate was 36 percent, compared with 54 percent statewide.
"For Waianae, this should be a celebration because it means our kids can do it," Nakamura said. "I got a kid going to Harvard — and that could be you, too."
Foster seems uncomfortable with the notion that her acceptance is noteworthy simply because of where she grew up: a small west Oahu town rich in heritage and pride that’s home to families of modest means.
"For anybody, it’s a big accomplishment," she said. "It’s not dependent on where you’re from."
Going to college was never a question for Foster, who attended Maili Elementary and Waianae Intermediate. But when she scored a composite of 29 on her ACT out of a possible 36, she thought she had a shot at the Ivy League.
"I knew with my grades, extracurriculars and financial background, that my resume looked good," she said. "I’m Native Hawaiian as well."
But for the middle child of three daughters, raised by a single mother, Foster knew it wasn’t enough to simply get into an impressive school. She’ll be able to attend Harvard because students from families who earn less than $65,000 a year don’t have to pay any tuition.
Her mother, Deidre Foster, credits her daughter’s success to a competitive nature and an ability to seize opportunities, such as her leadership role in Waianae’s famed media program, Searider Productions.
"She doesn’t like anyone feeling sorry for her," the mother said. "She wants it to be on merit."
Foster’s future at Harvard comes as Waianae tries to increase its college enrollment rate.
"In Waianae, we’re struggling with getting kids to even entertain the idea of college," Nakamura said. The Searider Productions students are in a "school within a school" that makes applying to colleges a requirement, and this year 92 out of 93 students were accepted to a two- or four-year college, Nakamura said.
But whether those students step foot on a college campus is often out of Waianae teachers’ control.
Foster is happy to inspire students to pursue college. Now that she’s acquired the nickname of "Harvard" around Waianae, underclassmen have been asking for advice on the college application process.
"That’s more than I ever thought I’d ever do for anybody," she said.