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Chuukese student graduates from Hilo High and HCC, looks to his future at Columbia University

  • Kelsey Walling/Tribune-Herald Hawaii Community College faculty cheer for Ed Ateria Poch-Yeichy during the drive-through commencement ceremony on May 14.

  • Kelsey Walling/Tribune-Herald Ed Ateria Poch-Yeichy poses for a portrait after graduating from Hawaii Community College with a Liberal Arts degree on May 14. Posh-Yeichy decorated the truck with the flag of Micronesia to celebrate his culture.

As the first Hilo High School student to graduate from high school and community college simultaneously, a young Chuukese student aspires to set a positive example for all Micronesian students.

On Friday afternoon, Ed Ateria Poch-Yeichy, 18, graduated from Hilo High School as one of the 22 valedictorians.

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The high school commencement came a week after Poch-Yeichy’s graduation from Hawaii Community College, where he participated in the Early College Program and graduated with an associate’s degree in liberal arts.

This fall, Poch-Yeichy will be moving to New York City to attend Columbia University on a four-year, full-ride scholarship to pursue medicine.

Poch-Yeichy’s family hails from Chuuk, one of the four states of the Federated States of Micronesia. His parents were part of the first wave of Micronesians to move to the islands in the late 1980s.

Poch-Yeichy and his siblings were born in Hilo and have lived here their whole lives.

“My parents decided to come here for school and to make a better life for themselves,” Poch-Yeichy said. “In the beginning of their time here, everyone got along great together, and the culture wasn’t too different.”

As time went on, there was a change in the way his family was treated by the community on the island. Hate and discrimination began to intensify as more Micronesians moved to the state, he said.

“There were points in my life where my parents wanted to go back to the homeland where they are more accepted,” Poch-Yeichy said. “They are headstrong and stubborn, though, so despite the discrimination, they decided to continue building a life and future for us.”

Because he was born in Hilo, Poch-Yeichy’s experience has been a little different than his parents. While he rarely faced outright racism, he often would hear discriminatory statements from his peers.

“It was hard from an early age to be the odd person out, and sometimes I would get weird looks when I would say I’m from Micronesia,” Poch-Yeichy said. “Sometimes, people would say that I’m not like other Micronesians, but then I would wonder — what are we supposed to be like?”

Poch-Yeichy believes the negativity toward his culture comes from the news coverage of lawbreakers who happen to be Micronesian. Many people don’t see or hear about the hard workers who are paying taxes, raising families and trying to do good in the community.

“I think we are judged by the bad apples, but every culture has bad apples,” Poch-Yeichy said. “You can’t let one person’s actions speak for an entire community, because that isn’t fair to anyone.”

The negative stereotypes against his people in Hawaii has fueled Poch-Yeichy to work as hard as he has in school. Through achieving his goals, he wants to set an example for younger Micronesian students.

“It’s important for me to set an example, because there is no voice to advocate for us in our community,” Poch-Yeichy said. “I want to achieve something positive to show people we aren’t all the same.”

Using his immense passion for his people and other underrepresented communities, Poch-Yeichy is planning on going to medical school and becoming a surgeon. He eventually wants to take all he learns on the mainland and return to Hilo to serve the community.

After helping the people in his home state, Poch-Yeichy’s ultimate goal is to open his own medical facility in Chuuk, which only has one hospital on the main island of Weno.

“My advice to a young Chuukese scholar is to find something you are passionate about. You will want to work hard toward that passion,” Poch-Yeichy said. “Medicine isn’t my passion. Medicine is my tool or craft that will allow me to help my people and underrepresented communities, which is my passion.”

Guidance counselor Kellie Frias has been working with Poch-Yeichy since he was a 10th-grader at Hilo High. Frias watched him balance a full college and high school schedule for two and half years while making it look easy.

“There is not an adequate word to describe who Ed is as a student and a person,” Frias said. “He’s responsible, polite, but he’s also still a kid. He knows what he wants to accomplish and does everything in his power to get it done.”

When Poch-Yeichy moves to New York City in the fall to attend Columbia University, it will be his first time out of the state and on the mainland.

“Other than getting used to the weather, I don’t think Ed will have a hard transition to college at all,” Frias said. “He’s so open-minded to everything. He takes everything in stride and knows how to take care of his responsibilities, no matter what they are.”

Poch-Yeichy received a full-ride scholarship from Questbridge, a program that helps students with outstanding academic ability pay for the school of their dreams, despite financial challenges.

Although he cannot transfer college credit from HCC to Columbia, Poch-Yeichy will be able to take higher-level courses when he starts as a freshman.

“I loved going to HCC and sitting among older students,” Poch-Yeichy said. “There was such a wide array of people, and I got to learn about the real world outside of high school. It was a great experience.”

Poch-Yeichy’s older brother, Eddie Poch-Yeichy, is the person who inspired the teenager to pursue the Early College Program.

“My brother Eddie was the first in the family to graduate from college and law school,” Ed Poch-Yeichy said. “I look up to him. He is my moral compass and taught me to do everything in the name of our parents.”

Eddie Poch-Yeichy works as a law clerk for Judge Henry T. Nakamoto and took the day off to drive his brother through the HCC graduation ceremony on May 14.

“Ed may be one of the younger members of the family, but we all look up to him,” Eddie Poch-Yeichy said. “He is a true example of how hardworking Micronesian citizens truly are. I’m at a loss for words for how proud I feel.”

Eddie Poch-Yeichy hopes his younger brother can use his accomplishments to motivate young Micronesian and Chuukese public school students to reach for higher goals.

“There is a lot of self-doubt that comes from living as a Micronesian in Hawaii,” Eddie Poch-Yeichy said. “I hope everything Ed does can inspire young people and help them not settle for less.”

Eddie Poch-Yeichy will miss his younger brother when he leaves for college, but is excited for him to experience life on the mainland.

Ed Poch-Yeichy is planning on spending the summer taking in Hilo as much as possible while spending quality time with his family and friends.

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“My parents haven’t stopped playing the drive-thru graduation video from HCC,” Ed Poch-Yeichy said. “It feels so good to make them proud, and I hope to continue making them proud my whole life.”

Email Kelsey Walling at kwalling@hawaiitribune-herald.com

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