Thirty years later, two middle school besties will graduate in ’24
The last time they graduated was in 1994 from Mililani High School. And when May 2024 comes around, Rita Aponte ’24 and KerryLynn Vea ’24 will again don their caps and gowns, as they prepare to cross the stage of the Waikiki Shell to receive their bachelor’s degrees.
BFFs since high school, Aponte and Vea were able to pursue their university degrees, thanks to Bank of Hawaii’s College Assistance Program (CAP), which allows its employees to get back on the path to obtaining their first four-year undergraduate degree with tuition reimbursement.
“The Bank started this program in 2016, and I started the following year,” says Aponte, Manager of Loan Operations with Bank of Hawaii. “And my bestie, KerryLynn, is also on this journey with me since we both always wanted to get our degrees.”
Both Aponte and Vea chose to start their families at a young age, hindering them from attending college. The two friends since middle school always had plans to return to university, but family obligations and full-time jobs prevented them from entering the college system.
“I get emotional when I talk about CAP,” says Vea, who was in the credit union industry for 20 years before joining Bank of Hawaii in 2016 and is now its Assistant Vice President-Mortgage Compliance Analyst. “Before CAP, I was resigned not to get my college degree, rationalizing to myself, ‘Oh well, I don’t need a degree since I already have a career.’”
The American Council of Education estimates that approximately 20 percent of graduate students and six percent of the much larger number of undergraduates receive some financial assistance from their employers to attend school. As many as a third of undergraduates in fields like business and engineering also receive tuition aid, which, on average, covers about one-third of the annual cost paid by post-secondary students.
Initially, when Aponte and Vea enrolled in Bank of Hawaii’s CAP initiative, they were limited to four specific start times a year (January, April, July and October). Today, new applicants have the flexibility to enroll for courses on a monthly basis throughout the year, which is consistent with Chaminade’s online Flex program.
“I’ve worked at credit unions where tuition assistance was always included in the employee manual book, but I never once saw it used,” Vea says. “Bank of Hawaii, on the other hand, vigorously promotes CAP and they champion it, putting funding behind it with no strings attached. The program is a 100 percent benefit to all employees.”
Bank of Hawaii’s executives said they needed a partner that understood the Bank’s vision of what they wanted to achieve with its CAP program. However, they also wanted to make sure that the online learning experience was customized to the specific needs of the Bank’s employees since they wanted CAP to be “a real pillar and cornerstone of what Bank of Hawaii is all about.”
“We thought it was not only important to train our employees in specific banking-related issues, but also to help them expand their overall educational base,” says Peter Ho, Bank of Hawaii’s Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer, in a video release. “From an education standpoint, the important thing is to really help shape the individual’s mind and spirit—and that’s what education is all about; that’s what college is all about.”
Although, Aponte and Vea didn’t experience the traditional campus setting, they were able to take their classes online, via Chaminade’s Flex program model, allowing students to take one or two courses at a time—or more if they choose—as they work toward their degree. And the pace of coursework rests with them. They can complete online courses in as few as six weeks. Or, they can take their time, wrapping up a course in six months. Flex students are also able to complete courses wherever they are, even on the go.
“It was a real struggle during the holiday season,” Aponte recalls. “Even when we went on vacation to Disney World, algebra came along with me.”
The Flex Online Undergraduate program is WSCUC-accredited (WASC Senior College and University Commission) and has a broad range of study disciplines, including business administration, criminology and criminal justice, historical and political studies, education and psychology. It is designed with working adults in mind, distancing itself from rigid term schedules and due dates to give students the flexibility they need to achieve a work-life-school balance and make progress toward reaching their goals.
“I started at Leeward Community College for a semester and a half, but scheduling was really difficult,” Vea says. “I just couldn’t do it all with a full-time job, a family and attending classes; it was a lot.”
Nor could Aponte.
“I didn’t think a college degree was in the books for me,” Aponte asserts. “It was always nagging at me to get my bachelor’s, but I used time and cost as excuses not to pursue it. And now I’m motivated to finish this and I can’t wait.”
Thirty years will have elapsed by the time Aponte and Vea attain their bachelor’s degree, and through the three decades, they’ve raised families, enjoyed successful careers and supported each other through both good times and bad.
“Getting the bachelor’s degree with Rita couldn’t get any better,” Vea says. “I always say I’m the Yin because I’m more subdued and quieter, and she’s the Yang because she’s more outgoing and vocal. We might be opposites, but through this college process, we’ve depended on each other and have been each other’s greatest cheerleader.”