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The power of a PhD

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Leaving Hawaiʻi sometimes leads to this awareness: Your destiny might be to come home and give back. That was the case with Noʻeau Peralto, a Hilo native who earned his bachelor’s degree in anthropology and Native American studies at Stanford University, before enrolling at UH Mānoa to obtain his master’s in Hawaiian studies and doctorate in political science.

Armed with his 2018 PhD from the College of Social Sciences (CSS), Peralto is leading Hui Mālama i ke Ala ʻŪlili (huiMAU), a self-founded, Hāmākua-based nonprofit that is feeding and nurturing his community through the pandemic. “Higher education is a great privilege that comes with great responsibility,” said Peralto, 32. “My parents, especially, sacrificed greatly for me to go away to college, so I was determined to honor them by making the absolute most of my opportunities.”

Born and raised in Waiākea Uka, Peralto was a member of the first graduating class of Kamehameha Schools Hawaiʻi campus in 2006. He moved to Northern California to attend Stanford University, where he played his freshman year as a kicker and punter on the football team. He spent the next three years actively engaged in the Native student community, when he met two UH Mānoa faculty who were visiting speakers: Noenoe Silva, CSS political science professor, and Jonathan Osorio, now dean of the Hawai‘inuiākea School of Hawaiian Knowledge. “Meeting them inspired me to return to Hawaiʻi for my graduate education,” said Peralto.

He blossomed as a political graduate student in the department’s Indigenous Politics Program. He received two prestigious doctoral fellowships, published five academic articles and book chapters, traveled across the Hawaiian archipelago, visited Indigenous territories in Canada and Aotearoa (New Zealand), and “stood shoulder-to-shoulder with children, parents and elders resisting social injustice in Hawaiʻi,” among other accomplishments.

“Noʻeau is a shining example of how our graduates have gone on to serve Hawaiʻi communities,” said Noelani Goodyear-Kaʻōpua, political science chair. “I am so proud that our doctoral program is exceptional in producing so many Native Hawaiian PhDs who are truly shaping the future of our islands.”

What they have in common is tenacity. The home stretch of earning a PhD is not easy – regimented coursework turns to a self-motivated period of researching and writing a doctoral thesis. As Peralto focused on his dissertation, he recalled how his life partner, Haley Kailiehu, an artist and co-founder of huiMAU, stepped up on home and work fronts so he could concentrate on serving as board president of the nonprofit while pursuing the pinnacle of academic credentialing. “I recall three months of sleeping during the day and writing my dissertation all night, when there were no distractions and work responsibilities,” said Peralto. “I absolutely could not have done this without Haley by my side.”

Now that Noʻeau is officially Dr. Peralto, he can fully focus on huiMAU, the innovative 501(c) (3) charitable organization whose mission is restoring and preserving the health of Hāmākua. Activities include removing invasive species and planting native vegetation; running an out-of-school program where keiki gather for online learning and to engage in Hawaiian culture and ʻāina education afterschool classes; and growing and distributing much appreciated food in the time of COVID-19. “We care for kūpuna and ʻohana-in-need by providing free, locally grown produce boxes, and have distributed over 50,000 pounds of fresh produce, proteins and value-added products from local sources,” he proudly shared.

Peralto is beyond grateful that his PhD serves as the fulcrum to uplift his island home. “I can say with great confidence that my training in political science and indigenous politics has prepared me well,” he said. “Our ancestors did not thrive in this place for hundreds of generations by settling for mediocrity. Excellence is the legacy left to us by our kūpuna, and excellence is what this ʻāina and our descendants demand of us.”