Keaau High School grad profiles: Jay Ta Rita Akuo and Raynard “Kalani” Chong

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A projected 206 students will graduate from Keaau High School today. The commencement ceremony begins at 4:30 p.m. in the school stadium.


A projected 206 students will graduate from Keaau High School today. The commencement ceremony begins at 4:30 p.m. in the school stadium.

The following are profiles of two graduating seniors selected by school administrators. This is the final story of six articles featuring soon-to-be graduates within the Tribune-Herald’s coverage area.

Students in this series are recognized for either overcoming significant hardships and/or for their academic achievements.

Jay Ta Rita Akuo

“Pain is just fear leaving the body.”

Jay Ta Rita Akuo still remembers hearing that quote for the first time. She was at a Keaau High School career fair and had just met a U.S. Marine Corps recruiter.

The quote has stuck with her ever since.

“I went home that day and started reflecting on (it),” said Akuo, now 17. “I wanted to stop being the quiet, scared girl I was. I wanted to be a better version of me, be stronger both physically and mentally.”

So at the beginning of this school year, Akuo decided to join what she says is the “toughest military branch” there is — the Marines.

In September, Akuo said she will fly to Parris Island in South Carolina for boot camp. She then will come back for leave and eventually head to Marine combat training followed by schooling for the job she’s assigned.

“I’m kind of nervous,” she said. “But I’m excited as well. I feel proud to be the first in my family to join a military branch. I feel I’m doing something positive for my family.”

Akuo’s family immigrated to Hawaii nearly two decades ago from Weno, an island of Chuuk State of the Federated States of Micronesia. She has six siblings. Her large family of 16, which also includes her aunt, her aunt’s four children, her grandmother and her grandmother’s daughter, resides in one house.

Growing up, Akuo said her family lived paycheck to paycheck. Her parents were “in and out of jobs trying their best to support us.” When she was younger, she sometimes felt ashamed to attend school because she didn’t have “new shoes or a new backpack.”

“It was stressful,” Akuo said. “You have so many things to take care of, and sometimes your parents won’t have enough for only one person. You have to share everything. It was really hard, sometimes when you don’t have enough to get the basics.”

As a Micronesian, Akuo said she also faced some racial discrimination and negative stereotypes growing up. That discrimination subsided as she got older. But she said joining the Marines also is a way of proving to others she’s capable of achieving any goal she wants.

“I joined the Marines to help my family, my country and myself,” she said.

Akuo said she eventually wants to attend college on the GI Bill or transfer it to one of her siblings. Ultimately, she wants to have the means to help her family financially, make them proud and serve as a positive role model for her younger siblings and other young girls.

“I hope I can inspire other girls to do something that people think they can’t do and to just go for it,” she said. “That’s why I’m not going to give up. I’m going to keep going for it until I graduate.”

Raynard “Kalani” Chong

Raynard “Kalani” Chong has some big goals for the future.

Next year, the 18-year-old wants to attend Hawaii Community College and enroll in the construction program. He enjoys building picnic tables, benches and other wood projects on the side.

Eventually, Chong wants to continue his education and forge a career in law enforcement.

“I’ve always wanted to be a police officer,” Chong said. “Ever since I was younger, it’s been my dream and still is. I’ve always wanted to be the one putting the bad guys in jail. Just to be able to help other people out.”

Chong has experienced some hardships through the years. He said he was abused as a young child and grew up without a strong family support network. Since an early age, he has lived in foster care. He estimates he’s lived in seven to 10 foster homes, some better than others.

“It was pretty hectic moving foster home to foster home,” Chong said. “It was pretty stressful because I couldn’t see any of my family.”

Despite those challenges, Chong said he always made school a priority. He said he’s graduating today from Keaau having earned a 3.8 grade-point average his last quarter.

“I never let anything affect my schoolwork,” he said. “No matter how hard it was. I’d talk to the teachers and sometimes they’d give me more time with certain assignments. But other than that, I just made sure to focus on my schoolwork. Even if the foster home I was in was bad, I just did my own thing and paid attention to what I had to do, which was school.”

Chong credits his past two foster home families for serving as positive examples and helping him most. He still keeps in touch with both. He’s lived in the same home now since freshman year. The family ultimately took custody of him, he said.

After high school, he hopes to find an apartment in Hilo, begin working and focus on school.

He advises other students facing hardship to focus on the future and not the past. He said his challenges have given him a better understanding of other people and he’s learned that things can always be worse.

He said he thinks past struggles have “definitely” made him a stronger person.


“It was a journey and a half, but it was worth it,” Chong said. “Everything made the man that I am today.”

Email Kirsten Johnson at