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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, June 18, 2001

High school counselor makes career of giving

By Rod Ohira
Advertiser Staff Writer

One day, a student may ask Waipahu High School college and career counselor Lillian Yonamine to recommend a few small, midwestern liberal arts colleges far away from bright lights and big cities.

Waipahu High School counselor Lillian Yonamine watches graduating students before commencement exercises at Blaisdell Arena. She has helped countless students go to college.

Gregory Yamamoto • The Honolulu Advertiser

One of her recommendations might be Grinnell College in Iowa, 59 miles outside of Des Moines, past corn fields, soybean fields and pastures to the town of 9,000 people. She might describe the non-traditional curriculum offered by the four-year college in a residential setting and the 1-to-10 faculty-student ratio.

And the reason she would have all those details is because she and Kaiser High counselor Nanette Umeda drove 90 minutes to get there last April.

They arrived at the "nice little community town" to find a campus that features a Greek Revival administration building, a Gothic-style chapel and a classrooms building adorned in Classical style with red brick walls and tall white columns.

Yonamine has visited more than 120 schools in the past 10 years, mostly at her own expense and time, so she can offer options that best fit her students' needs.

She can tell them about Ripon College in Wisconsin — which last year graduated a Waipahu alumnus who is now attending medical school at the University of Hawai'i — or what it's like at Harvard, Stanford and Southern Methodist.

"A lot of our students do not have the opportunity to visit campuses so I go and tell them what it's like," said Yonamine, a 1995 Milken Family Foundation National Educator Award winner who has dedicated the $25,000 she received to Waipahu High students and programs. "I can only recommend; I can't make decisions for them. But I never want our kids to say later, 'I should have.'

"There's a good end to everything because students will make a decision. It's exciting to be part of the process just by giving them options."

At 66, Yonamine has been on the Waipahu High faculty since Hawai'i became a state in 1959. She has been to 41 graduations and has taught several generations in some families. Sherrie Caras, for example, is among the seniors Yonamine will be counseling in the coming school year. She also had Caras' mother, Beth Johnson, and grandmother, Blanche Oshiro Johnson, as students.

Going the extra mile

Lillian Yonamine, Waipahu High School counselor, speaks to some students at Blaisdell Arena.

Gregory Yamamoto • The Honolulu Advertiser

Knowing that many of her students are the first in their families to attend college fuels Yonamine's dedication to match them with the right schools, as well as her desire to ferret out scholarships and financial-aid packages.

"She goes the extra mile by calling them in, telling them what's available and leading them through the process," said Waipahu Principal Patricia Pedersen. "Lillian also holds meetings in the evenings, explaining financial-aid options to parents. She's one of the most professional people I've met in my education career of 30 years."

Yonamine is able to complement her passion for traveling and desire to assist seniors with their post-high school planning with visits to college campuses during spring and summer breaks.

A typical 10-day spring tour would include 13-17 campuses, she says. A full tour covering all facilities, labs, classrooms, residential halls, a meeting with students, and administrative, curriculum and financial-aid briefings takes about three hours, Yonamine said.

Summer tours run between 10 days and two weeks. "If we're doing the Bay Area, we'll take in all the schools, but if it's Los Angeles, we can only do a variety of schools," Yonamine said. She's planning to visit campuses in Southern California that will include stops at Otis College and Cal Arts.

"I cannot call it a job," she says. "These trips are so educational because I get to share with others. It allows you to make improvements for yourself, the program and school."

A Hilo native, the former Lillian Kitamura was a physical education teacher and newlywed when she came to Waipahu High in her third year of teaching after graduating from the University of Hawai'i at Manoa. Her husband, Masa Yonamine, was the school's athletic director and football/baseball coach. In 1959, the intermediate and high school were both at 94-455 Farrington Highway, where Waipahu Intermediate School is today.

When Alton Armstrong, the first of four principals she has worked for at Waipahu, moved her from PE to counseling in the late 1960s, it gave Yonamine a different view of students.

"I was amazed at how resilient some youngsters had to be to come to school with all the financial and personal problems they had to cope with," she said. "Some of them were just trying to survive."

Give children a chance

She applied her husband's coaching philosophy to counseling.

"I watched Masa coach and to him, the kids were all special," she said. "He had kids coming out of Olomana School (at the Hawai'i Youth Correctional Facility). We'd take them down to GEM to buy clothes, pick them up on the way to school, feed them breakfast, things like that to nurture them.

"Masa used to also give them lunch and haircut money," she added. "His philosophy was never cut anybody down and always give them a chance to do their best. Those kids really appreciated what little they had. I've found the same thing in counseling."

Lillian Yonamine's standards have not changed over the years. It starts with turning in paperwork neat and on time.

"She kept me on path to meet deadlines for applying to schools and scholarships," said Ernest Chun-Olinger, a UH-Manoa sophomore majoring in computer science. "She knows what fits for certain situations. When I applied to UH, she made sure I had all the information and contact numbers on accessibility.

"But to me, she was a friend. I could talk to her, not only about school but other stuff."

Money still matters

Yonamine says ethnicity of a Mainland school is a concern of some students while others worry about size. All, however, have one thing in common: finances.

To do it, Yonamine regularly attends conferences in Washington, D.C., to learn about new programs and grants. "That's when I hear about federal monies coming down, and I want to make sure Waipahu kids will have an opportunity to get their share," she said.

Myron Arakawa, Punahou's director of college counseling and winner of the 1997 College Board's Western Region Distinguished Service Award, says public high school counselors like Yonamine are "the real heroes in our profession."

"Of the public school counselors, my opinion is Lillian is at the top," Arakawa said. "She's always looking for ways, programs and federal monies to try and help her school and students. She could be cruising right now, but what impresses me is she's still looking for ways to deliver the goods to the kids."

Yonamine, who is setting up a new "school-to-work" curriculum at Waipahu, isn't thinking about retirement. What keep her going are the success stories.

Take Linh Doan, who attended Waipahu about a decade ago.

"She's a Vietnamese girl who went to Seattle University with very limited funds," Yonamine said. "She wanted to be a doctor because when she was coming over to the United States, the boat she was on sank and people drowned. She remembers holding an infant who had drowned in her arms."

Doan, who worked for two years so she could go to University of Michigan's medical school, is now doing her residency And she has never forgotten her counselor.

"She has sent me letters and Mother's Day cards and kept in touch all these years," Yonamine said. "For me, it makes working the whole process worthwhile."