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John and Monica Kauwe share experiences that prepared them to lead BYU–Hawaii

Monica and John Kauwe stand together smiling in an aloha shirt and dress with palm trees in the background.

When John S.K. Kauwe III realized he was being offered the position of president at BYU–Hawaii, he and his wife, Monica Kauwe, said their first thought was, “What? Us?”

Regardless, the couple, living in Orem, Utah, prepared for the difficulties of moving a family of seven across the Pacific to begin their new life.

“It is an incredible challenge and privilege to be asked to be part of such a great university,” said President Kauwe, who succeeded John S. Tanner as the 11th president of BYUH on July 1, 2020. According to Church News, he is the youngest-ever president of a university owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He is also a descendant of Kaleohano, one of the original native Hawaiian converts of the early Church on Maui.

President Kauwe said, “I know the incredible potential that is here on campus, in every student. The fact I get to have a part in building the foundation for their future and launching them to be successful in both secular and spiritual things makes me really happy and excited.”

I know the incredible potential that is here on campus, in every student.
President John Kauwe

A life prepared 

Dr. Richard Gill, department chair of biology at BYU in Provo and a good friend of President Kauwes’, said they were hired by BYU at the same time and connected over a shared interest in building student diversity in the sciences.

“I can’t imagine somebody whose life would have prepared them better to take on the opportunities and challenges that exist [at BYUH],” said Gill after hearing the news of Kauwe becoming president of BYUH.

President Kauwe said he and his wife felt they had been uniquely prepared for the task ahead. “We have a life that has prepared us to be comfortable with people from anywhere and to understand how important those different viewpoints are.” He said their life experiences have prepared them to “be balanced and realize in every conflict there are two different sides… and to think about them in a complex way.”

One such conflict, he shared, was the proposal to build a scientific observatory on Mauna Kea, land considered sacred to Native Hawaiians. He said he knew key players on both sides of the argument. Many of his friends were interested in hearing his thoughts as both an elite international scientist and a Native Hawaiian with deep connections to his homeland.

During the height of the Mauna Kea conflict, President Kauwe said he wrote a social media post expressing he wasn’t obligated to feel a specific way based on either his role as a scientist or his heritage as a Native Hawaiian.

Kauwe said finding balance with all the different influences in his life is important to him and has been a flashpoint for both good and bad.

“I have 100 percent had times in my life where I was treated poorly because I’m brown. I’ve had times in my life when I felt like I wasn’t brown enough. I understand all those feelings. I felt those things, and I understand why people are sensitive in those contexts.”

Upbringing and culture

In addition to Hawaiian, President Kauwe explained he has Chinese, Maōri and Portuguese ancestry. “Many of us are raised in multiple cultures, multiple places and with multiple influences. Over time, you identify with a main culture, but you still have meaningful parts of your life and your identity that are part of those other cultures. And so that’s kind of who I am, as I was raised in a family that was very strongly Hawaiian.”

Kauwe shared he grew up cooking using an imu, a Hawaiian pit oven, in his backyard in Utah. He explained because he felt very comfortable in his Hawaiian heritage, moving to Molokai when he was young felt natural.

Kauwe graduated early from Molokai High School as valedictorian, but he stayed connected to the school, “offering research and mentorship opportunities to promising science Moloka’i students,” according to The Molokai Dispatch.

He explained Hawaiian customs were a part of his upbringing, as well as speaking Pidgin, which he said he occasionally slips back into when around family and friends.

He shared an experience a few years ago where he took a student back to Moloka’i to do some research, and after talking with his uncle for 40 minutes, the student asked, “What language were you speaking?”

Despite his Hawaiian ancestry’s heavy influence, President Kauwe explained he finds value in all his cultures and life experiences. “For me, it’s not like we’re trying to say we’re this or we’re that. I value all the parts of my heritage and have identified with them at different parts of my life for different reasons.”

Experiences serving a mission in Japan, living on multiple islands of Hawaii and working with youth in inner-city St. Louis, Missouri, are all experiences that have helped him, he said. These experiences placed him in a position where he could find balance within the pressures of culture and “the discomfort so many of us feel when we’re at the interface of those cultures and we’re not sure where we fit,” President Kauwe explained.

On top of all those complexities, he said there is a spiritual pressure of maintaining a testimony, despite any cultural and societal divides.

“I feel like the Lord has prepared us with our experiences to be able to sit at that interface and have meaningful conversations with everyone, listen to everyone and show love to everyone. And hopefully, find some solutions that maybe work better than some have in the past.”

Running with it 

John and Monica Kauwe walk with their five children with the light shining through the palm trees in the background.

Monica Kauwe said she first met her husband, John, through his cousin, one of her high school classmates.

The two ran into each other years later at a 10K race President Kauwe said he had not initially planned on running. “I didn’t even sign up for that race,” he explained. “I just showed up that morning on a whim. I woke up and thought, ‘I should just go run that race today,’ and it changed my life.”

President Kauwe shared a key aspect of his wife’s character is her ability to bring people together. “Even when we lived in St. Louis and we weren’t around family, she was always the person who got groups of people together and made them feel loved. For us, that involves great food and friends, but it’s deeper than that. It’s valuing people and feeling how important it is for them to get together and feel welcome in one place.”

Although neither of them are runners, the Kauwes shared when they met at the 10K race, they were both preparing for a marathon. Both of their running partners had also recently dropped out, so they decided to start training together, explained Monica Kauwe.

President Kauwe said he calculated it once, and he and his wife had run a total of about 200 miles together before they ever went on their first official date.

Gill said he noticed their strength as a couple. “Monica is every bit [John’s] equal. She is compassionate and kind.” He said President Kauwe has the capacity to look outward and help others because of “the incredible work that he does in Alzheimer’s research and humanitarian work, in part because of Monica’s capacity to create a secure and nurturing place in their home. They are equally yoked, and they do amazing things together.”

Although they don’t do much running anymore, the Kauwes said they value their children and any time they can spend together.

“Our whole marriage we’ve continued to stay friends, and as much time as we can spend together, we do. It’s really rare for one of us to go off and do something separate from the family because we just like to be together.”

Kacey Sorenson, a senior from California studying English at BYU in Provo, said she got to know President Kauwe during a school-sponsored trip to Samoa. As they drove around the island visiting schools and screening children for rheumatic heart disease, Sorenson said she and a few other students would sit in the back of the truck and listen to him talk.

“You get a sense that his Hawaiian heritage is super important to him,” said Sorenson. She added one of her most memorable experiences was listening to him list each of his children’s names and detailed explanations of how and why they chose each name.

“You could see how important his Polynesian heritage is to him in how respectful he was towards the Samoan people we were with and how respectful he was to other people.”

The simple life

Monica Kauwe worked for almost two years in the pharmaceutical industry before becoming a full-time mother.

President Kauwe has spent last year as dean of Graduate Studies at BYU in Provo and made key contributions to discovering new genetic risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease. He is an internationally recognized researcher with 85 peer-reviewed publications, according to the McKay School of Education at BYU in Provo.

Gill added he was impressed to watch his colleague take a professional leave once so he and his family could spend a summer in Moloka’i. Gill said it was difficult to do with how productive his research career was at the time,

From the beginning, Sorenson said she noticed despite all of his accomplishments, President Kauwe was still very approachable. “You get this sense he is this remarkably capable person who maintains this groundedness and humility. He has this awareness that [he] can be smarter and more successful than anyone else but… [still] roll up [his] sleeves and do the grunt work because [he’s] just like anyone else.”

President Kauwe said he and his wife are not complicated. “It’s funny because we feel like we’ve been given this big responsibility, and we should be more special and complicated than we are, but we’re not. We just love our kids and love our family. We have fun being together and try to take good care of the people around us.”