A Deep Sense of Purpose and Meaning

2023 Commencement Address By President Mike Latham ‘86

Aloha mai kākou, and welcome, everyone. There are some moments in our lives where our joy is so powerful and so overwhelming, that it shapes our memories forever. This certainly is one of those. Graduates of the Class of 2023, congratulations, you did it! As you look out into this vast arena, I hope you recognize the tremendous love, care, and excitement on the faces of those who are here to celebrate you and your accomplishments. You each earned the diplomas I am about to hand you through countless hours of discipline and determination and wonderful flashes of creativity and inspiration. You also know, of course, that none of it would be possible without the great support of your parents, friends, families, teachers, and mentors. As you reflect on your own experience, I am sure you can each call to mind the people that always stood by you, encouraged you, and believed in you even when you weren’t so sure you believed in yourself. In a very real way, your diplomas belong to them too, and I encourage you to thank them and tell them just how much they mean to you.

As children of Ka Punahou, the new spring, we are all the beneficiaries of 182 years of history, and the generations before us that created the school and community we are so blessed by today. Late in the evening, or very early in the morning, as our campus stands in silent beauty, I often think about the many hearts, hands, and minds who devoted themselves to the growth, care, and education of Punahou’s students. As I walk by the Lily Pond, step across the Academy Quad, or climb the path up Pu‘uomānoa, I feel a deep sense of gratitude for those who came before us.

Among them stands one teacher I would like to reflect on tonight, Mary Kawena Pukui. Born in 1895 in the remote Ka‘ū District on the southernmost part of Hawai‘i island, she reflected the cultural intersections at the origins of Punahou itself. Her mother, Pa‘ahana Kanaka‘ole, was from a long and revered ancestral line of priests, medicinal experts, and midwives in Kīlauea and Ka‘ū. Her father, Henry Nathaniel Wiggin, was a sugar plantation manager from Salem, Massachusetts, and a descendant of Massachusetts Bay Colony Governor Simon Bradstreet and his wife, Anne Bradstreet, the famous Puritan poet. Raised first by her maternal grandmother, who had danced in the court of Queen Emma, Mary Kawena Pukui was immersed in Hawaiian culture from childhood. In the early 20th century, when she moved with her parents to Honolulu, she embarked on a lifetime of teaching and writing about Hawai‘i. Even as a teenager, she began to collect and record Hawaiian stories and proverbs. Eventually, she would publish more than 50 books and articles and compose over 150 songs and chants. During the late 1930s she taught in the Junior School at Punahou, delighting in meeting with groups of children to teach Hawaiian language, stories, games, and music and creating our first curriculum in Hawaiian studies, or ‘ike Hawai‘i. Through the early 1940s she also taught at the Kamehameha Schools and began a quarter-century of work at the Bishop Museum, collaborating with anthropologists, linguists, and fellow scholars to write, teach, and record oral histories, dance, legends, and Hawaiian ways of life. 

Mary Kawena Pukui’s scholarly record is truly stunning, but what I am most inspired by is the deep sense of purpose and meaning she found in her work. In a period of massive economic and political change, an era in which much of Hawaiian culture was in danger of being lost, she ultimately provided a crucial connection, recovering and sharing knowledge that would help provide a foundation for the Hawaiian Renaissance of the 1970s. As she reflected late in her life, “Will Hawai‘i remain Hawai‘i without the knowledge of Hawaiian culture? Without it, what will make Hawai‘i distinctive? If we make no effort to preserve all we can, what then?” Always generous and eager to engage with people of many backgrounds, she also understood her own blended ancestry as a source of strength. “Because I know my mother’s language,” she reflected, “I’ve enjoyed exchanging thoughts with other Polynesians, to discover our likenesses and our differences. And because I know my father’s, I can explain to others what we have had here and lost, and what we still retain. Knowledge, to me, is life.”  

My hope and prayer for you tonight, graduates of the Class of 2023, is that each of you will find a compelling vocation of your own, a North Star that inspires, motivates, and fills you with joy. Like Mary Kawena Pukui, I hope that you will find not just a career, but a true calling that allows you to connect your amazing talents, intellect, and abilities to the needs of the wider community you belong to. Your Punahou education, after all, has centered on discovery. As you have studied science, mathematics, history, literature, and language, you have discovered the natural world around you and the human systems and cultures that have shaped it. You have also discovered more about yourself, about your own values, passions, and ideals. Where you once asked only “what am I good at, or where do my talents lie,” you have now shifted to start asking another, deeper set of questions: “what do I care about, what matters to me, and what might I be willing to commit myself to?” Inspired by the example of Mary Kawena Pukui, and her hope that Punahou would be a “spring of wisdom,” Punahou’s mission now asks you to “discover your purpose and kuleana to Hawai‘i and the world.”

That process involves real reflection and discernment, and it takes experience and time. As your school’s president and the parent of a graduating senior, I’ll offer you just a few pieces of advice. First, go out and explore. As you head off to college, branch out and venture into disciplines you are less familiar with. Explore internships and volunteer opportunities in fields you are curious about. Spend time with people from other cultures and parts of the world and if you can, study abroad. You just might have a pivotal experience or find a talent and interest you didn’t even know you possessed. That process is not always easy or comfortable, but real, authentic growth rarely is. So remember too that asking for help when you need it is never a sign of weakness, it is a sign of maturity. Know that you are strong, and you are ready. Second, take time to step back and reflect on your own experiences and feelings. We are often so consumed by the next project, commitment, or obligation that we easily lose sight of the big picture. So put down your phone, go for a walk in the woods, or have a long conversation with a close friend or mentor who knows you well. See if you can shut off the noise, distraction, and pressures of daily life long enough to ask yourself what you are most passionate about, excited by, and satisfied with. Listen carefully, and you may find your answer.

President Mike Latham ’86 sharing a special moment with his daughter Anya ’23, who received her diploma at the Commencement ceremony.

Finally, and most crucially, look for the alignment between your talents, your heart’s joys and desires, and the world’s great needs. Kuleana, after all, means not only duty or responsibility. It also reflects the work you do out of a profound sense of gratitude and the recognition of what a privilege it is to serve. Some of you will find that inspiration in medicine, science, government, law, or business. Others may discover it in teaching, coaching, or mentoring. Many of you will encounter it in the joys of parenting. No matter which path you pursue, however, I hope you will allow yourself to be transformed through dedication to a larger, human cause. As Father Pedro Arrupe, one of the past century’s most influential spiritual leaders reflected, “what you are in love with, what seizes your imagination, will affect everything. It will decide what will get you out of bed in the morning, what you do with your evenings, how you spend your weekends, what you read, whom you know, what breaks your heart, and what amazes you with joy and gratitude. Fall in love, stay in love, and it will decide everything.”

Thank you to all who made this joyful night possible. Thanks to the Trustees who have joined this celebration, to our Academy Principal Gustavo Carrera, Junior School Principal Todd Chow-Hoy, and your Class Deans, Erin Maretzki and Deane Salter, for their compassionate guidance, care, and support of you all. Mahalo to our musical leaders, Lauren Williams and Darin Au, to our many wonderful parent volunteers, and to Lynn Kunishige, the amazing architect of this ceremony and a friend to so many of you.  

To the Class of 2023, congratulations and thank you! You have made Punahou a better place, and I can’t wait to see what you will do in the future. We are very proud of you, we will miss you, and we hope you come back often. Aloha, and God bless you all.

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