Amy Marshall Kaonohi, the student speaker for BYU–Hawaii’s graduating Fall Class of 2021, said speaking at commencement came unexpectedly because she has never given a talk at church during her time at BYUH and does not consider herself a very sociable person.
Kaonohi, a senior from Florida graduating with a degree in computer science, won an outstanding award in computer science from the department. Her father, BYUH Assistant Professor and Systems Librarian Justin Marshall, said his daughter did not expect to earn the award. “That has never been her goal. … She doesn’t really picture herself as an outstanding student.”
Kaonohi said learning programming taught her to trust in the Lord and believe he can get her to where she needs to be because programming assignments are different from other school assignments since they don’t have a set solution. Despite her frustrations, she said she has managed to receive answers to her problems by uttering a simple prayer for help and trusting things will work out even if she can’t find a solution.
She said her message for her classmates on Dec. 10 will be to use the skills and knowledge they’ve gained here at BYUH in their lives. “By relying on Heavenly Father, [they can be] prepared for whatever is to come.”
An unexpected task
“I’m not a big public speaker,” Kaonohi shared. When asked to meet with Academic Vice President Isaiah Walker, she said she suspected it would be related to graduation. Despite her fear, she said she accepted the assignment. “It feels like something [I couldn’t] say no to.”
Her husband, Tevai Kaonohi, said he too was surprised when he heard his wife had been chosen to speak for the graduation. “She is quiet and shy if she isn’t comfortable with you, which is why it’s funny she is giving the speech at graduation.”
Marshall said he didn’t think there was a possibility she’d be chosen for the task to speak at commencement because although she “always likes to do well,” she never had a goal to be a speaker at graduation.
Stepping away from school
Upon graduating high school, Kaonohi said she studied biology at BYUH from 2013 to 2015 but later decided to go into computer science. “I realized I kind of liked computer stuff, which I intentionally ignored because my dad does it.”
Despite declaring a major during her sophomore year, Kaonohi said she was still uncertain about her goals and decided to defer school for four years. During this time, she explained she got married, worked as a zipline tour guide at Kualoa Ranch and moved to Arizona.
Kaonohi said they moved to Arizona so her husband could play football at a small college. While living there, she began working as an optician and considered settling on optometry as a career.
However, her husband injured his leg in Arizona and could not play football anymore. Tevai Kaonohi said his wife tended to his temporal and academic needs during his recovery without complaint. He added she was “real loving and caring, hard-working and self-driven.”
It was then Amy Kaonohi said she got the impression she and her husband needed to return to Hawaii. “I could be an optician, and I could get paid pretty okay, and it’d be fine. But it felt like I was capable of doing more.” Kaonohi said she decided to return to school and pursue her degree in computer science.
After graduation, she said her goal is to land a programming job but isn’t sure what specific career she wants to attain. “I realized it is hard to get a meaningful job without a degree in anything.” She said this realization showed her it’s important to get a degree, even if it wasn’t in something she would normally be into.
The drive to work
Marshall said Kaonohi’s experiences during her deferment helped prepare her to finish her degree when she returned to BYUH. “She had a feel of the real world and I think she realized the importance of what she’s doing here.”
Kaonohi said working around doctors while she was an optician also motivated her to resume her education. “They [made me] feel somewhat more motivated because they’ve done a lot of schooling.”
During this past semester, Kaonohi shared she enrolled in a computer science course taught by her father. She added it felt weird having her father as a professor. Marshall said Kaonohi and her sister, who was also in the class, “were more concerned about me embarrassing them than anything.” He added nobody would ever suspect Kaonohi and her sister are his daughters.
Kaonohi said she enjoyed her father’s class because she learned how to design video games. “I wish they had more classes in gaming because there’s not a lot. … It’s really different from some of the other things we’ve learned.”
She expressed her admiration for computer science and learning the evolution of computer programming. “It’s a really weird subject [because I went] from not understanding what’s happening in a computer to using them all the time.”
Schooling during the pandemic was difficult, said Kaonohi. However, she shared it helped her realize what she was capable of during times of uncertainty. She said figuring things out on her own helped to find solutions “without as much help as [she was] used to getting.”
Hayden Kahawaii, a senior from Laie majoring in information technology and Kaonohi’s classmate, said Kaonohi is very self-driven and hard-working. “She’s able to do things for herself. If she sets a goal, she’s able to attain it. Whatever she puts her mind to, she can do it.”
Kahawaii said she met Kaonohi during the Winter 2020 Semester. He said they had worked on a group project together, and they both understood the fair amount of effort they had to contribute. “I knew I could count on her.”
Schooling during the pandemic was difficult, Kahawaii said, but Kaonohi’s work ethic motivated him. “It’s definitely helped me to know I’m not the only one struggling.” He said he and Kaonohi, both earned the outstanding award from the computer science and information technology departments.
Marshall said his daughter is very goal-oriented and dedicated to succeeding at whatever she does. He said he is not surprised by her work ethic because he knows her dedication. He said he isn’t sure what his daughter is set on doing, but that “whatever she wants to do, she has the capabilities of accomplishing.”
Tevai Kaonohi said his wife is driven towards providing a better future for their family and “to be better and always work towards something better.” After meeting her, Tevai said he wanted to better himself and grow. “Before knowing her, I was still trying to find myself. Feeling lost. I’m still working on it, but she is my reason.”