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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, December 19, 2002

Desire lifts ex-dropout to top of class at BYUH

By Beverly Creamer
Advertiser Education Writer

At 14, Joseph Marler experimented with drugs and alcohol and hung out with kids doing the same. Though his experimentation ended within a few months, it nonetheless led to a 0.00 grade point average that year, and helped usher him out of Kahuku High School without a diploma.

Joseph Marler was the valedictorian at last week's Brigham Young University-Hawai'i graduation ceremonies.
But last Saturday in La'ie, 10 years later, Marler stood in front of his college graduating class at Brigham Young University-Hawai'i a changed man, and gave the valedictory address to an enthusiastic audience.

"He was picked because his GPA was the highest among all the graduating seniors," said Robert Wakefield, director of university communications. "He got two A-minuses his whole college career. The rest were A's."

Today Marler has a bachelor's degree in three-dimensional fine arts and is considering graduate school on the Mainland to study architecture, with the idea of teaching someday. He'll be moving to Colorado with his wife, Leslie.

"I feel an obligation to help kids like me," he said. "To help them understand. To give them a better perspective.

"I've come to realize that you have to want it first. That's what young people have to realize — that they want it. You can encourage that, but that has to come from within themselves. Going to college there are classes I don't like, but I still do the work for them because I have a work ethic now and the discipline. But that first step is to find that desire within yourself, even though it can be hard to find."

Marler's turnaround was inspired not just by a divine hand, but by the hard work of two years on a Mormon mission, and the realization that his path was one that entailed learning discipline.

"I loved learning and reading books, but I found high school boring," he said.

Instead of school books, Marler would tote his own. Instead of math, he'd draw.

"I've been doing art since I was in kindergarten and I've always been focused on that. I felt an artist didn't need higher education, so to me it was irrelevant ... "

But eventually he realized he wanted to be a teacher, to work with other young people, maybe some like himself, and pass on his love of art and of learning. But to do that he needed to get his GED and a college degree.

For Marler, the motivation to do those things evolved slowly through his church mission in New Jersey. He would arise at 6:30 a.m., study scriptures for two hours and then work for 10 more. He would fall asleep dead tired and wake up and do it all again.

"And it's completely voluntary," he said.

Marler said he comes from a family of seven mischievous boys who all grew up in La'ie.

"We're pretty notorious in this community," he said, even though his parents, Mike and Myrna, are professors at BYUH, heading the Language Learning Center.

Despite their ups and downs, the brothers seem to have emerged as the magnificent seven.

Brother Danny graduated summa cum laude. John, the youngest, is pulling a 4.0 at Leeward Community College this year. Ben, who went to an alternative high school for a time, is back in college on the Mainland and getting straight A's. Jeff, meanwhile, graduated with a degree in history and is working at Turtle Bay Resort, and Matt has carved out a stable life in Provo, Utah, installing heating units, even though he also dropped out of high school. Aaron is a security guard in Denver.

"You want to move on," Marler said, reflectively. "You don't want to think of yourself as someone who was that" — the dropout he once was.

"You just want to think of yourself as a good student, a good person, someone who is on the right track."

Now that's who he is.

Reach Beverly Creamer at bcreamer@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-8013.