Hawaiian student studying nursing
Southwestern Michigan College students travel varying distances to class, but rarely 4,267 miles with a 10-hour flight through San Francisco to Chicago.
Except for living in Keith H. McKenzie Hall on the Dowagiac campus, nursing student Christina Lai merits consideration for SMC’s champion commute.
Born in Vietnam, Lai moved to Hawaii after third grade and skipped fourth grade, enabling her to graduate from Penn High School in Mishawaka and complete her first semester of SMC prerequisites while still 17.
“I was looking for affordable colleges close to my aunt and uncle,” Lai said. “We found this place with a really good nursing program and convenient dorms.”
She lived with relatives her last year of high school after three years at Lahainaluna High School.
There are 4,267 miles between Dowagiac and her parents’ home on Maui, where she worked for Fleetwood Mac drummer Mick Fleetwood.
“He’s really tall and owns a restaurant (Fleetwood’s on Front St. with a rooftop bar affording ocean views),” she said. “I made $15 an hour as a 16-year-old high school student. Steven Tyler from Aerosmith has been there. I met (actress) Minka Kelly. Justin Bieber, Selena (Gomez) and Taylor Swift have been there.”
“I miss the weather,” she said. “Every morning I wake up and check my phone to see the temperature. In Hawaii you never have to wear more than a T-shirt. ‘Winter’ is 70 degrees with everybody in leggings, boots and sweaters.”
Lai’s hometown, Lahaina, was the center of the global whaling industry in the 19th century and the 1820-1845 kingdom capital.
“I went back to my parents’ in Maui last summer,” working as a Starbucks barista and obtaining her driver’s license.
“Thanksgiving I’m going to hang out with my boyfriend’s family and my aunt, uncle and cousins.”
She’s not missing turkey dinner back home because the Chinese, Vietnamese and Hawaiian cultural confluence means dishes made with Spam, eggs or hamburger eaten during a discussion in “pidgin.”
Lai, who has a sister, 13, will see Hawaii again next summer.
“My parents are business owners,” she said. “They own a spa. Growing up, I always had a passion for helping people. I really like kids, so I’m going to be a pediatric nurse. Hawaii’s paradise, it’s really beautiful, but not the school system. My first three years I didn’t get the help I needed and struggled. I got a lot of help at Penn.”
Lai knows how to surf, but school sports “aren’t big in Hawaii like in the states,” she said. “I played soccer freshman year. Sophomore year I tried out for co-ed wrestling.”
At Penn, “I found I was good at painting, so took a lot of art classes,” said Lai, who speaks Vietnamese and English. “Nursing is really competitive, so I’m focused on school and my GPA. I can apply for the nursing program next fall” and eventually transfer to Indiana University in Bloomington.
People are “very shocked” to learn she’s from Hawaii.
“People in Hawaii think I’m crazy. There’s nothing much to do” except hang out at the mall or “pool hop” between resorts on weekends.
Home is congested compared to southwest Michigan, which feels “empty. I’m used to living in the crowded city — not cornfields. There are a lot of hotels. Graduates study culinary to make money in the restaurants. The only farming is coffee and sugar cane. The mall and movie theatre are an hour from Lahaina. We can take a ferry to Lanai or Molokai.”
She has driven to St. Joseph and Benton Harbor, but has yet to surf Lake Michigan.
“My high school was not as big as Penn,” she said, “but classes were outside. It never rains in Lahaina,” whose name means “cruel sun” due to the hot, dry climate.
The largest U.S. banyan tree, planted April 24, 1873, for the 50th anniversary of the first American Protestant mission, is a Courthouse Square landmark, renamed Banyan Tree Park.
Eight feet when planted, it grew 60 feet tall with 16 major trunks and a .66-acre canopy.
“Tourists gather there in the heart of Lahaina shopping,” Lai said.
Unlike Waikiki, the Honolulu beachfront neighborhood on Oahu, “Some beaches are not safe to swim because of rocks, so we drive to nicer ones. I almost split my head open when I first tried surfing.”
She packed in three days for the Sept. 3, 2015, mainland move, with no time for long goodbyes or misgivings, just feeling “excited.”
“My dad called my uncle one night and withdrew me from classes the next day,” she said. “I had a little party that afternoon, then left. I moved so fast a lot of my friends were in shock. I got here Aug. 30 with no clue what to expect, except snow and cold. My dad, who lived in Indiana for six years, had three days to buy me a car and help me move.”
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