It’s that time of year again when high school and college graduates mark milestones and set forth toward their futures as young adults. What a great time to look back on my graduation memories.
When I graduated from Kamehameha Schools (the main campus on Oahu) in 1973, our high school class held ceremonies at the H.I.C. (Hawaii International Center) in downtown Honolulu (renamed the Neal S. Blaisdell Center after the mayor who erected it). The large sports arena was needed to accommodate 300+ graduates and their guests. We all wore white with our royal blue silk class leis as we sang our school song one last time together. Our class was the last to have military dress blues part of the boy’s uniform (military training for boys was mandatory for 4-years). After the ceremony, we all dispersed to stand under the gate with the first letter of our last name as we waited for our friends and family to find us. In Hawaii, people give all kinds of flower leis to graduates, piling them so high on the young person that sometimes all you could see is their eyes.
What an exciting time that was to leave the land of my birth and go forth to the mainland for college. Little did I know then that it would be in college that I first became aware that I was different – not everyone grew up eating different ethnic dishes at the same meal, playing with cousins of different ethnic backgrounds, and celebrating different cultural activities than mine – which was the essence of growing up in Hawaii.
In 1973, I entered the University of Pacific at Stockton, California, as a student athlete with honors at entrance award. I used to play girls college basketball when I began my studies at the Conservatory of Music based on piano performance. I wanted to be a music therapist and use music to help people. However, during my sophomore year I changed majors after hearing a presentation by Gordon Imlay on the American Humanics program that prepared graduates for careers with youth agencies. My first job was with the Metropolitan office of the Seattle, Washington YMCAs after graduation in 1977 with a Bachelor’s Degree in Recreation, Youth Agency Administration. (Note in the photo: behind my diploma is a plaque given by the Anderson YMCA as a Youth Service Award for my volunteer work during college.)
It seems ironic that after I changed majors I began to relax and enjoy making music more. I taught my Jewish roommate how to sing hapa haole songs (English lyrics to Hawaiian style music) so I could dance hula as she sang, and she taught me to sing in Yiddish, and thus we performed as a roommate act singing and playing our guitars at the college coffee house. Where else but in college could girls from New York and Hawaii meet in the middle in California and forge a musical friendship that still goes strong today?
I remember when my dad said, “Music is the universal language and it will open doors for you.” I have danced hula for YMCA executives in Alexandria, Egypt; sung American jazz standards with European musicians while cruising on the river Seine outside Paris, France; and represented the state of Hawaii in concert at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.
I have come full circle to my original intention of going to college to study music to help people. Now my business mission is to “Spread the joy of making music, one ‘ukulele player at a time.” You can have fun learning to “Watch. Listen. Play. The Ukulele Mele Way.”
Aloha, Mele Fong aka Ukulele Mele