Stronger Together Hawai‘i Scholarship: From Homeless to Hopeful
The pandemic was not the hardest part of Christian Fernando-Alonzo’s past 12 months.
Christian Fernando-Alonzo, who graduated from Waipahu High School this spring, has a motto: “At the end of the day, you get to define what your path to success is.” And not many of us have walked a path as difficult as his.
Fernando-Alonzo knew for a long time what he wanted to do with his life, but he came by that knowledge the hard way. Some of his earliest memories are of his older sister, who had cerebral palsy. When she was in third grade, she passed away. “From that moment on,” he says, “I knew I wanted to be a health professional.”
Not just any health professional, but a doctor. In his first years of high school, he gravitated to the sciences, particularly biology. He never had much money, but he had a loving family and caring teachers. Things were going well and adults saw the potential in him. By sophomore year, he had been promoted to supervisor at Jamba Juice in Waikele, where he worked after school, managing people a decade older.
But, in the first quarter of senior year, things got exponentially harder. Even with work as a restaurant equipment technician, servicing Starbucks and other eateries, his father was paid only when there was work, and the family couldn’t make ends meet. They were evicted in the fall.
The day his family had to leave their home, says Fernando-Alonzo, “I still had to go to school. My head was just swirling.” After school, he caught the bus to his job at Jamba Juice. His duty was to close the store. That night, he says, “There was no home to go to.”
Over the next many weeks, Fernando-Alonzo and his family cobbled together different sleeping arrangements: in their car, at a family member’s, or at a homeless shelter. Sometimes he’d wake at 5:30 a.m. to catch the bus to school or work, then close the store at 9:30 p.m. and go wherever he was sleeping for the night. The next day, he’d do it all over again.
School got tough—it’s hard to do homework without Wi-Fi. He finally told his teachers about his situation, and several of them, including Mr. Murakami, Ms. McDermott and Ms. Harris, lifted him up, says Fernando-Alonzo: “Even when things were rough, I had teachers that were like a mom and dad. They would always check up on me.”
Fernando-Alonzo found shelter at his girlfriend’s family home, where finally he had access to Wi-Fi, which, he says, helped him pass his classes. And he kept hoping his parents would be able to turn things around. They had moved into a shelter but continued to support him any way they could, including giving him rides at night from his workplace.
His dream, though, felt out of reach: “I wasn’t even sure I would be able to go to college,” he says. So he focused on what he could do: finish high school, and at least apply. His teachers made sure he had the resources he needed and helped him navigate the complicated applications for college admission and financial aid. His University of Hawai‘i application was due on March 1.
Two weeks later, the COVID-19 stay-at-home order was announced. Eateries and coffee shops closed indefinitely, and his father went from not enough work, to no work. “Everything went even more downhill,” says Fernando-Alonzo.
But then, after a few months, the good news started coming. His acceptance to UH-Mānoa arrived, along with a Pell Grant and a Mānoa Opportunity Grant, which covered part of his tuition. His parents and sister, who is now a freshman at Wai‘anae High School, were able to move from the shelter to transitional housing. And he took an online course designed to help 2020 grads with their post-high school goals, called Next Steps to Your Future, an initiative of the University of Hawai‘i and Hawai‘i P–20 Partnerships for Education.
“It was very helpful,” says Fernando-Alonzo of the course, which covered life skills from time management to credit-building: “That course teaches you how to set yourself up in life to be successful. It made a really easy transition to going to college.”
It was also the gateway to the application to the Stronger Together Hawai‘i Scholarship started by the Hawai‘i Community Foundation with the help of donors, and matched with seed funding from First Hawaiian Bank, totaling $2 million.
When he found out that he was selected as a scholarship recipient, Fernando-Alonzo says, he couldn’t believe it. “I still can’t.” The scholarship covered the rest of his tuition.
Now he can focus more on being a college freshman—and the first college student in his family. Though his classes are currently online, the students enrolled are from all over the United States, and several other countries. “That’s pretty interesting to me,” he says. “I never thought I would meet people like that.” Although a full-time university course load is four classes, Fernando-Alonzo is taking six. “I figured, why not?”
His dream is within reach again. “My community helped me a lot,” says Fernando-Alonzo. The way he sees it, his community is part of his future, too: “I want to go into the medical field and help people in my community and improve the quality of life for others.”
Sure, Fernando-Alonzo says he wishes things had been easier. But, he adds: “Everything that’s happened, I appreciate. Because it’s made me who I am.”
Christian Fernando-Alonzo is the recipient of a Stronger Together Hawai‘i Scholarship, which was developed to support the Class of 2020 public high school graduates in Hawai‘i who had their school year and planning cut short due to COVID-19. The scholarship provides funding to attend two- or four-year postsecondary institutions starting in the fall of 2020. The scholarship fund was seeded by $2 million from First Hawaiian Bank and the Hawai‘i Community Foundation. “We want [these students] to be the future of Hawai‘i,” says Bob Harrison, chairman, president and CEO of First Hawaiian Bank. “If we can help them take that future through education, that’s what we’re trying to achieve.”