UH Mānoa's Office of Multicultural Student Services turns 50
After a trip to the Philippines in the 1980s, Clement Bautista became more interested in learning about his Filipino heritage.
His cousin recommended getting involved with Operation Manong while he was a UH student.
He started as a tutor to younger students. And he eventually became director in 1990. He stayed for the next 30 years until retiring in 2020.
"Our emphasis was always on the community," he said. "It started there, and we always tried to push that.”
Operation Manong was created by three UH faculty and students to support immigrants at Hawaiʻi’s public schools. It’s considered the first UH program to focus on diversity and access to higher education.
Immigrant and civil rights advocate Amy Agbayani was one of the co-founders. She immigrated from the Philippines to Hawaiʻi as an adult.
“We found out that they really needed help because they were not treated well by their peers and also their teachers didn’t understand them," Agbayani said. "So we, as college students and faculty, said, ‘Well, let’s go there and tutor them.’ And many of the college students were immigrants themselves.”
Manong is best translated as older brother or cousin in Ilocano. It’s a nod to UH students serving as mentors to younger kids. Thousands of students have passed through the program. Bautista said program participants had high graduation rates — about 80% to 90% graduated within four to five years.
But Agbayani said justifying it to administrators and legislators wasn’t always easy. The office was first funded through a federal grant. After that, she lobbied the state Legislature for money until Operation Manong became a line item in UH’s budget several years later.
“We used to have to argue that we belonged at a university," she said. "But I think the university’s objectives have evolved.”
The scope of the office has changed over the years. And in 2000, Operation Manong became the Office of Multicultural Student Services to reflect that.
OMSS offers outreach and support programs. The goal is to break down barriers for those who face social, economic and educational challenges.
One of those programs helps community college students transition to UH Mānoa.
Leon Florendo was a Leeward Community College transfer and a program participant in 1988.
The youngest of five children, he grew up in Waiʻanae and is the only one in his family to attend college. He said his dad had a second-grade education and his mom was a picture bride from American Samoa.
Florendo now works as a counselor at LCCʻs Waiʻanae Moku Education Center, helping students in similar situations. He said Operation Manong helped him embrace his culture.
"It also gave me a better sense of identity, a better sense of who I was, who I am," Florendo said, "and just really appreciating the hardships and acknowledging the challenges my parents had to go through.”
Bautista said they pivoted and expanded to other underserved groups as more programs at UH began to address inequities.
He said their budget in the 1980s and 1990s was larger than what it is today, so it was challenging to have fewer resources and money. But they were able to supplement some funds with grants and community partnerships.
Adrianne Guerero heads OMSS now. After transferring from Kapiʻolani Community College to UH Mānoa in the mid-1980s, she participated in Operation Manong as a student mentor and recruiter.
Guerero is one of two full-time staff, as well as a handful of student workers, that the office employs.
One of the programs they still offer is the Hawaiʻi Undergraduate Initiative. It's free for incoming students from underserved communities and backgrounds. Students take summer courses and learn more about UH. They're also provided with mentors and tutors, who are UH students.
She said their programs still reflect their mission of helping and supporting students.
“I felt like one of those that fell through the cracks. So when I go out there helping all these communities, it’s like helping me, that person a long time ago at Farrington (High School) who was so lost," she said. "So I think when we go out there and we provide this connection to college… it makes that dream of going to college much more tangible.”