From Lanai to Harvard and back again: How one woman found her calling at home

From Lanai to Harvard and back again, how one Lanai woman found her calling at home.
Published: Sep. 15, 2022 at 12:26 PM HST|Updated: Sep. 15, 2022 at 3:37 PM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Shelly Preza is truly a product of her environment.

Preza grew up on Lanai but started boarding at the Kamehameha Schools when she was 12.

The distance would grow in college as she took a big leap to the East Coast to attend and graduate from Harvard University.

Now, she is the executive director of the Lanai Culture and Heritage Center, a nonprofit organization that seeks to preserve and inform people of the island’s rich history and culture.

“I really was thinking about, you know, wanting to be able to spend time with my family, my grandma, she’s one of the last like Korean women from the plantation era that I think is still on Lanai, and I was thinking about how she was getting older and what would be valuable of my time,” Preza said.

Preza said while at Harvard, she would come back in the summer to work with the Lanai Culture and Heritage Center through their annual summer programs.

“We instilled in her, I believe this sense of kuleana that she has to her own ancestors and to her family,” said Kepa Maly, former executive director of the Lanai Culture and Heritage Center. “And she is manifesting that in ways that I could never have imagined and in a far greater way than I could have done as well, just ‘cause she’s young and agile, you know, she’s got a great mind.”

Preza said those summer jobs were some of the most valuable learning experiences.

“To be able to learn things from Kepa Maly, who was one of the co-founders of the Culture Center, those were things that I would never have gotten at Harvard,” Preza said.

She majored in English, but also took all the classes she never got a chance to pursue in high school like ethnicity, migration and rights. And that brought her even closer to home to a program that is really deep into the community and the island of Lanai itself.

“The Culture Center functions partially as a small museum, but we also do a lot of outreach programs for students, for the community and for visitors,” Preza said. “Anyone who really wishes to learn more about the island and our rich history.”