University of Hawaii student John Kekaʻa Kahiewalu Kalauli “Kalā” Kaawa III never expected to receive a standing ovation after receiving his diploma at the school's commencement ceremony in January 2015. Then again, Kaawa didn't plan on stripping off his gown while on stage either.
“I imagined being escorted from stage,” said Kaawa, from Maunalaha Valley, Oʻahu. “Not being allowed to graduate, being mocked by the people up there just because it’s not the ‘norm’ to wear a malo for graduation.”
Kaawa, 23, and several other students had been wearing traditional Hawaiian clothes for a traditional chant - or oli - at the beginning of the ceremony. Afterwards, he'd simply covered up his malo -- the traditional Hawaiian loincloth -- with his green graduation gown.
But while sitting in the back row of the Manoa campus' Stan Sheriff Center with the other Hawaiʻinuiākea (School of Hawaiian Knowledge) students, waiting for his turn to walk up to the front to receive his diploma, he had an idea and texted his mother: "I think I’m gonna take my robe off and just go malo."
Kaawa says he wanted to show his pride in his culture and heritage. As he walked to the front of the arena, he casually began undressing -- removing his hat, then his gown -- until he was standing on stage wearing nothing but the malo, and hoisted his degree above his head.
The standing ovation that followed, he says, left him astounded. The applause continued as Kaawa walked all the way back to his seat. Following the ceremony, strangers came to congratulate him by placing lei around his neck.
"Whether you are Hawaiian, Maori, Samoan, Tongan, or whatever culture you claim," said Kaawa, “know your roots, represent, and perpetuate. Not just for yourself, but for your family, your ancestors, and the future generations of your culture."
Kaawa graduated with two bachelor’s degrees from University of Hawaii Hawaiʻinuiākea - a double major in Hawaiian Language and Hawaiian Studies with a concentration on Mālama ʻāina (land conservation).