Taylor Fukunaga’s got game. The 17-year-old plays softball for Waipahu High School, teaches kempo karate and dances her heart out on the school’s competitive hip-hop dance team.
But that’s just one slice of her life as a high school junior. Like many of her peers, she is taking Early College courses, and has done so well that she is among 171 students now at Waipahu High who are members of Phi Theta Kappa, the honor society for students at two-year colleges.
Fukunaga is taking it even further, blazing a new trail as the first high school student ever elected to help lead the collegiate Phi Theta Kappa, as one of its four international vice presidents. Starting July 1, she will represent 263 college chapters in 13 western states plus Guam, Palau, American Samoa and the Marshall Islands.
“Taylor is so special,” said Principal Keith Hayashi of Waipahu High, which has 2,800 students. “She’s always aspiring to do more and better herself. She definitely is a risk taker — not in a bad way, a good way. She’s willing to try different things, which is what we want from all of our students.”
Fukunaga, who also was just elected student body president at Waipahu, said she would never have thought of running for the international office. But Mark Silliman, emeritus director of Early College at Waipahu, asked whether he could nominate her. And over the years she has learned one vital lesson.
“You never know until you try,” she said. “That’s basically what the big message is.”
This year, for example, as a member of Waipahu High’s Academy of Industrial &Engineering Technology, Fukunaga swallowed her fears and tried a welding class. “I was scared, but it’s actually a lot more fun than I thought,” she said.
Trying things can also help you figure out what you don’t want to do, the spunky teenager points out. After being in the engineering academy, she has decided she doesn’t want to be an architect or an engineer after all, and is now is thinking of options like becoming a civil rights attorney or a secondary school teacher.
“In elementary school I was that kid that wouldn’t talk,” Fukunaga recalled in an interview. “I never really spoke during meetings. I really felt like my voice wasn’t important.”
But at Waipahu Intermediate she broke out of her shell, ran for student government president and won. “I realized I really liked working with people, I liked public speaking and I really like serving the student body,” she said.
In 2012 Waipahu High pioneered the Early College program, which brings professors onto high school campuses to teach college courses. Since then it has taken off and spread statewide. Some students, dubbed “Olympians,” earn enough credits to obtain their college associate’s degrees at the same time as their high school diplomas.
In 2018 its students had such a track record that Waipahu became the first high school in the country to obtain permission to charter its own chapter of Phi Theta Kappa. Silliman, who helped make that happen, considers the honor society “one of the most powerful tools that we have to motivate young learners out of poverty, to inspire them to work hard.”
This year Waipahu’s chapter, known as Beta Chi Omega, received the Distinguished Chapter Award for the Pacific Region. It has focused on collaborating with and mentoring students in the elementary and middle schools in the Waipahu complex, which also have their own honor societies.
“It’s not just individual students, but collectively as a chapter, students are really doing well,” Hayashi said.
This semester, 22 seniors at Waipahu will graduate as Olympians, earning associate’s degrees at the same time. They include Chantelle Nartatez, who was just chosen by the Hawaii section of the American Chemical Society as one of two Outstanding Organic Chemistry Students of the year at the University of Hawaii West Oahu, and Reyan Lee, a National Merit finalist and one of 50 Coca-Cola Academic Team Gold Scholars in the nation.
Ten students at Waipahu High School qualified for the 2021 U.S. Presidential Scholar program, among the 64 students who qualified statewide from public and private schools. Three of those Waipahu students went on to become semifinalists out of eight altogether statewide. The majority of students at Waipahu come from low- income families.
“I think what’s important is that as our students continue to be successful, they encourage others,” Hayashi said. “And so we start building this culture and expectation. … We want to bring as many students in as possible to that can-do attitude.”
For Fukunaga, waging a campaign for international office during a pandemic required creativity and perseverance. She made a website, videos and social media posts to help persuade members that she was up to the job and show what she wanted to do, since the campaign had to be online.
She even reported for duty at 3:30 a.m. Hawaii time to staff her virtual booth at Phi Theta Kappa’s annual convention last month and field questions from members in all time zones. She chose “Holomua” (moving forward) as her campaign theme, with the metaphor of “Taylor’s voyaging canoe,” charting a course to reach the four pillars of Phi Theta Kappa: scholarship, leadership, service and fellowship.
“I knew I needed something that would help me stand out,” she said. “I knew whenever anyone thought of Hawaii, it puts a smile on their face. I used that Hawaiian theme and the different things I planned out to get to each destination, to show that I’m capable of holding international office.”
“I want to spread the joys and the opportunities that this prestigious honor society offers and how much it can open doors for high school students like me and many others at Waipahu High School,” she added. “It can really change people’s lives.”
This year the hardworking kids at Waipahu turned the tables and nominated their principal for recognition by the honor society. In February, Hayashi received the Shirley B. Gordon Award of Distinction from the national Phi Theta Kappa, a leadership honor that until then had been bestowed only on college presidents.
“He’s the person who doesn’t get enough sleep,” Fukunaga said. “He is constantly working on different projects that make our school better.”