My journey back to school

A tale of two moms

Brandy Kahawai (left) and Michelle Ah Mook Sang (right) – Cynthia Lee Sinclair
Brandy Kahawai (left) and Michelle Ah Mook Sang (right) – Cynthia Lee Sinclair

This is the tale of two different moms who have successfully come back to school after many years.

Michelle Ah Mook Sang is the current president of WCC’s chapter of Phi Theta Kappa, an international honor society of two-year colleges and academic programs. Phi Theta Kappa co-adviser Ryan Koo describes Ah Mook Sang as a very hard worker.

She was born in the Philippines but moved to the U.S. mainland when she was one and a half. It has been 28 years since she graduated from high school in northern California. Her husband is a local boy from Pearl City. She moved to Hawai‘i to be with him 18 years ago.

She came back to school two years ago to earn her associates degree in liberal arts in order to finish her requirements for the dental hygienist program at UH Mānoa.

“I went back to college because I knew I was capable of getting a good career,” Ah Mook Sang said. “I always believed that a degree was within my potential.”

She chose dental hygiene because she is passionate about preventive care. “I believe that teaching people to care for their teeth will make a difference in their smiles–and their lives,” she said.

Ah Mook Sang has a daughter who is 11 and a son who is 13. Her biggest struggle as a non-traditional student is trying to find enough hours in the day, though it is easier with her kids in school themselves.

“It is hard to find time to care for my family, my home, attend classes, do my homework and still function as a normal human being,” she said.

Her number one success strategy is making sure she eats only nutritious food and gets plenty of sleep.

She said her favorite subject in high school was chemistry because she had a teacher who made learning fun.

“It is something that all the instructors here at WCC also do.”

Her motto is “that which we do with ease, we must first do with diligence.” While she’s not sure where she first heard this phrase, it immediately appealed to her, and she has done her best to live up to it ever since.

“Going back to school is a struggle,” she said. “It may be difficult, but it’s not an impossible dream.”

Fellow WCC student and mom Brandy Kahawai describes her journey back to school as “a new season in her life.” She returned to school with the hopes of landing a higher paying job when she graduates with an associates degree in business administration next spring.

Kahawai has been a stay-at-home mom since she was 18. She is a proud Native Hawaiian who embodies grace and aloha and is always quick to help others. She recently came to the rescue of a fellow student who had taken a bad fall. She selflessly helped the injured student get to the hospital and back.

Kahawai has faced overwhelming odds with a bright smile and a positive attitude. With six kids, ages three to 17, there is little time for her to study, but she works tirelessly to keep up in all her classes.

“As a mom, we come last,” she said.

It is often 11 p.m. before she has a chance to do her homework. Then the next day starts again early in the morning, getting kids to daycare and school and then off to her own classes.

At first, it was a struggle for her kids to go from a 24/7 mom to a mom in school, but they have learned to share her time and attention.

Sometimes they have had to come to school with her when they have been sick. Now they want to come with her to class all the time.

“They would rather come to college instead of their school now,” Kahawai said.

She said that the thing that gets her through is the support of her friends. She has a core group of friends that meets regularly to study in the student activity center in Hale ‘Ākoakoa.

Her favorite subject in high school was history. She loved taking history at WCC from Ryan Koo or “Master Koo” as she calls him. She said there was never a dull moment in his class and that she learned a lot.

Kahawai credits her TRiO counselor, Sarah Akina, with being her most valuable resource on campus and her “go to” for everything, helping her navigate the process of being a student as a friend and mentor.

Kahawai has had to take out student loans to afford the expensive task of paying for school and the exorbitant cost of childcare. She pays $825 a month for the one child she still has in day care. She gets a grant that helps with some of the cost, or it would be even higher. She also has children at Kamehameha Schools, another large expense.

She supports and will greatly benefit from a childcare facility on campus, which is in the works for WCC and is set to open next fall.

Kahawai loves WCC and wishes she could stay and get her bachelor’s degree here. She currently has a 4.0 grade point average and is on the dean’s list.

“You are not just a number with the professors here at WCC,” Kahawai said. ”They really care about you as a person.”

by Cynthia Lee Sinclair, Ka ‘Ohana Staff Reporter