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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, May 17, 2009

UH-Manoa's new grads go for handshakes, hugs

By Michael Tsai
Advertiser Staff Writer

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

More than 1,500 students received bachelor degrees at the Stan Sheriff Center yesterday. Another 800 later received advanced degrees.

JEFF WIDENER | The Honolulu Advertiser

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Neither depressed job market nor threat of H1N1 virus could dampen the spirits of some 1,500 University of Hawai'i-Manoa undergraduates who celebrated commencement yesterday with hoots, hugs and lots of fearless handshakes.

An overflow crowd turned out for what university officials were calling one of the largest commencement exercises in recent memory.

And about 800 graduate students participated in the school's advanced-degree ceremony later in the afternoon.

The university had initially banned official handshakes at the ceremony out of concern over spreading the potentially deadly H1N1 virus, but officials later amended the precaution to allow graduates to shake hands at their own discretion.

While a few opted to receive their diploma folder sans contact, most stuck with tradition, accepting the folder with one hand and receiving a congratulatory shake with the other.

The university provided Germ-X antibacterial wipes for each grad at their seat.

"They were being cautious and that's a good thing," said 21-year-old Steven Doo, who received a bachelor's degree in civil engineering. "But I think the whole thing was kind of blown up. They make it like everyone's going to die or something."

Hank Wuh, founder and chief executive officer of Cellular Bioengineering Inc., gave the commencement address.

Wuh, who attended UH for two years before transferring to Johns Hopkins University, recounted his experiences as an immigrant from China who took advantage of his educational opportunities to become an orthopedic surgeon, inventor and entrepreneur.

In his address, Wuh encouraged the school's newest alumni to adopt his company's motto of "Invent. Disrupt. Inspire."

"It's your turn to dream, to create, to be bold and daring, to seize the opportunity to shape and define the future," Wuh said. "Human creativity is extraordinary in that it is boundless and it is limitless. If something can be imagined, it can be achieved."


Wuh said that such imagination is especially critical given that graduates will be entering a working world rocked by "a severe economic crisis, possibly the worst since the Great Depression."

Still, many graduates seemed unfazed by the current economic situation and its implications for their budding careers.

"I'm not really worried about it," said graduate Christen Vidanovic, 26, who has been operating her own photography business for the past three years. "I feel that if you commit yourself to something you care about, you'll be satisfied in life and monetary gain will follow."

Yesterday, graduates demonstrated that they've at least mastered the art of time management.

As the ceremony entered its second hour, Doo and a group of his civil engineering classmates commandeered a small alcove behind the stands for a game of trumps.

Wyatt Hue, 21, already has a job lined up, which fits perfectly with his elegantly simple post-graduation plan:

"Party it up, then go to work for the rest of my life," he said.

As usual, graduates found a wide variety of ways to make themselves stand out amid the forest of green caps and gowns. Some decorated their mortarboards with sequined hearts or Hello Kitty designs, others with pictures of their families. One graduate did away with the cap entirely, taping a tassel directly to his bald head.

Some walked to the stage in pricey Cole Haans, others in rubber slippers, a few others with bare feet.

Perhaps no one appreciated what the moment meant more than former UH basketball player Tes Whitlock, who took the stage yesterday to receive his bachelor's degree in sociology.

Whitlock, 36, played for UH from 1994 to 1996 before embarking on a vagabond professional career that found him playing in the ABA, CBA, IBA, USBL and NBA Development League.

Whitlock returned to UH two years ago to serve as the Warriors' video coordinator and team manager and, most importantly, to complete the academic work he had started more than a decade earlier.

"What a journey," Whitlock said. "Being back here at the Stan Sheriff Center for this beats any game I ever played in here. This is very special for me and my family because the first reason for me coming to the University of Hawai'i was to get an education."


Dominique Sarimiento, 23, of 'Ewa Beach, started her college career as a biology major, but soon found that she also had a knack for English. Yesterday, she graduated as a double major in both disciplines.

Sarimiento, who is second-generation Filipino and the first in her family to earn a four-year college degree, will be applying to law schools for possible admission in fall 2010. She said she eventually wants to practice medical law with an emphasis on helping minority populations.

"Right now, I have to get a real job and pay my student loans," she said.

Perhaps the most poignant moment of yesterday's undergraduate ceremony came near the end, when school officials presented a posthumous degree for Devin Fujioka to Fujioka's father, James.

Devin Fujioka, who was on track to complete a degree in food science and human nutrition, died two months ago at age 25.

As his father took the stage to receive the degree, Fujioka's classmates from the College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources stood in applause, triggering an arenawide standing ovation.

James Fujioka described his son as a "very shy kind of guy" who explored engineering, computer science and auto mechanics before finding his niche in nutrition. Devin Fujioka would have graduated this semester and had an internship waiting for the summer.

James Fujioka said some of his son's classmates wrote notes to his family, sharing memories of Devin.

"That was very kind of them, because Devin never talked to us about that kind of stuff," Fujioka said.

As Fujioka exited the arena floor, he stopped so his wife could snap a photo, his eyes red and watery as he held the diploma folder to his chest. Behind him, the assembled graduates turned their tassels from right to left, signifying their passage from students to graduates.

"This was overwhelming," Fujioka said. "I have to thank the university for helping us get through this. I thought it was just going to be a small thing but I think Devin would have really wanted it this way."