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Kealaka'i Matsumoto with his two Shelties, Kama and Malu, which he brought to Iowa where he is studying to be a veterinarian.

Despite the odds, Hawai‘i CC grad follows passion for pets all the way to vet school

Kealaka'i “Ala” Matsumoto, a 2011 Hawai‘i Community College graduate, is enrolled at the Iowa State University College of Veterinary Medicine, one of the most prestigious vet schools in the country. 

Matsumoto’s journey to this point surprises even him at times. He went from an underachieving high school student to doctoral candidate; from Hilo, Hawai'i to Ames, Iowa; from an academic and career path in social services to one in veterinary medicine. 

“Hopefully my success can inspire local kids to dream big,” Matsumoto said recently. “I grew up low-income, from a broken home, and without any college-educated family members but still pursued my dreams. Top that off by being of mixed minority background and it seems the cards were stacked against me, yet here I am: the only Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander in the oldest public veterinary school in the country. I would love to see more Native Hawaiian representation within the Hawai‘i medical field as a whole. We can be doctors, but we too often believe it’s beyond our reach.”

Matsumoto’s time at Hawai'i Community College was an important turning point. As a student at Waiākea High School, he chose the beach over books and did the minimum required to earn passing grades. 

At Hawai‘i Community College, however, he found more purpose in academic work, especially as he applied what he learned in the classroom to the real world.  

“Going through the classes, especially when I got to the practicum levels, it clicked: ‘You know, I’m good at this college thing,’” he said. “I was on the dean’s list, which surprised me. I felt very accomplished.” 

He earned an associate of arts in Liberal Arts and a certificate in Human Services from Hawai'i CC, credentials that prepared him to transfer to the University of Hawai'i at Hilo to earn a bachelor’s degree.

Just as he was entering UH Hilo, however, and getting ready to double major in psychology and sociology, came a surprising twist.

“My brother was babysitting my puppy for me and called me and said he ran over my dog,” Matsumoto recalled. “I said, ‘What do you mean?! You’re babysitting him!’ I took the puppy to the vet, and working with the vet there, something clicked and I said, ‘You know what? I want to become a vet. I want to do this.’”

Matsumoto, who grew up involved in the local rodeo community and has owned dozens of pets in his lifetime, soon switched majors at UH Hilo and joined a pre-veterinary bachelor’s program with a biology minor, and he graduated in 2016.

A couple years after graduating from UH Hilo, he applied to veterinary schools and got in. 

A Believer in Community College

Matsumoto is grateful for the opportunity Hawai'i CC provided, with its lower tuition, open access admissions, and smaller classes. It allowed him to explore his interests and prepared him to transfer to a four-year university. He still preaches the benefits of starting at a community college. 

“I push it all the way,” he said. “I tell all the seniors I know if they are planning on going to college, start off at the community college. You can go directly to a university; it’s not a bad option. It’s just not the smart option in my opinion, especially if you’re not as academic in high school. Your first semester, it’s learning how to be a college student. After that, you’re still going to want to have that small class size with professors who know your strengths and weaknesses and know how to help you. In two years, you’ll be prepped and primed to transfer to a program you choose.”

Future Goals 

Matsumoto has grown to appreciate Iowa despite being nervous about moving there, but Hilo is his home, and when he graduates in 2023 he plans to return. 

“My goal once I graduate is to come home and work at a clinic in Hilo,” he said. 

He wants to serve the community as a vet and as a mentor to veterinary students. He sees a close connection between his desire to help people – evident in his initial choice to pursue social services – and his new career choice, helping animals. 

“The connection between human services and animal science is so profound yet often forgotten,” he said. “A veterinarian is trained to assess and treat their patient, but the patient wouldn’t be there without the human client. Bedside manner can make a huge difference in both the client interaction as well as the patient’s prognosis. Veterinarians love animals, but they need to be able to work with people.”

As for Polu, the Australian Shepherd puppy whose injury prompted a switch to a veterinarian career path, he is alive and well and remains on Hawai‘i Island with Matsumoto’s mother.

“He’s 10 now,” said Matsumoto. “Has all four legs and a plate in his hip.”