"If it were not for ʻImi, I would not be sitting in this chair right now."
Those are the words of Dr. Gerard Akaka, a renowned physician and Vice President of Native Hawaiian Affairs and Clinical Support at the Queen's Health System.
"Being a VP and doing this work would never have happened. The same goes for all the people I was able to help and impact. It was ʻImi that made it possible."
The University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa John A. Burns School of Medicine's ʻImi Hoʻōla Post-Baccalaureate program is one of six of its kind across the nation that provides those who pass with a conditional acceptance to a U.S. medical school. Dr. Akaka's sentiments are shared by the hundreds who have completed ʻImi Hoʻōla.
This month, the program credited with putting more than 300 Native Hawaiians and others from underserved backgrounds on the path to medicine celebrates its 50th anniversary.
A Noble Cause
ʻImi Hoʻōla means "those who seek to heal." In 1973, it started as a pre-medical enrichment program for Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander students. The goal is to create physicians who reflect the communities they serve. Fifty years later, the mission is still the same, but it's evolved to meet the needs of disadvantaged students from all backgrounds. ʻImi Hoʻōla does not make admissions decisions based on ethnicity or race.
"We want to meet the needs of those students who would not have the chance to enter JABSOM through its regular admissions pathway," said Dr. Winona Lee, director of ʻImi Hoʻōla. "They may be first-generation college students or English language learners. Our program opens the door and allows them to walk through to give them that opportunity to really serve the people of Hawaiʻi."
ʻImi Hoʻōla was founded by Dr. Benjamin Young, now 85. He is one of the first Native Hawaiian physicians and the first Native Hawaiian psychiatrist. In an interview with STAT, he explained his outreach methods in recruiting the first ʻImi class.
"I was heading to middle schools, high schools, and colleges and meeting with the counselors, finding out who their brightest students are who were interested in medicine — but thought they could never do it because their MCAT scores were low. All they needed was a review of pre-med chemistry, biochemistry, anatomy, zoology, and they could possibly get into medical school," Dr. Young told STAT.
In that interview, Dr. Young told the story behind ʻImi's first student, Chiyome Fukino. Dr. Young met her father as he was purchasing a vacuum cleaner. He mentioned ʻImi Hoʻōla and encouraged Fukino's father to have her apply. She completed the program and eventually became the State Director of Health for Hawaiʻi.
Producing Hawaiʻi's Leaders
Dr. Fukino and Dr. Akaka's stories are not rare. For the last 50 years, many ʻImi graduates have made indelible impacts on the health of Hawaiʻi and beyond.
Former ʻImi Hoʻōla director, Dr. Nanette Judd, said many have gone on to hold key leadership positions at JABSOM and throughout the state.
"Many of them have gone on to be chairs of departments," she said. "Dr. Neal Palafox was one of our early students in the program. He's devoted more than a quarter-century to improving the health of Pacific Islander populations. Dr. Naleen Andrade chaired the Department of Psychiatry. She also chaired the board of Queen's Health System. These are just two examples of our leaders. They're also mentors, and that mentorship is so important because when the students see them, they know they can do it, because they're being mentored by people who have done it."
Building leaders is a common theme of ʻImi Hoʻōla. The current president of JABSOM's Class of 2026, D-Dré Wright, is an ʻImi graduate.
"It's certainly like no other experience I will ever have in my life. The things I've learned were far beyond academics," she said.
Wright declined other medical school acceptance letters and rolled the dice with ʻImi, even though there was no guarantee she would pass the program.
"It was a risk, but I knew that I wanted to practice in Hawaiʻi and what better place to learn how to care for the people you hope to serve than by learning in the facility out there serving the community," Wright said. "Not only did ʻImi provide me with a foundation of the clinical sciences, but it also instilled and strengthened this mental toughness that I can take with me as I pursue a career as a physician."
Dr. Lee credits the principles of the program for developing strong leaders.
"We help students reveal to themselves the confidence it takes," she says. "They all have the ability, but at times, they may be faced with impossibility. They may question if they should be sitting at the table. In ʻImi, we have students embrace that. We tell them, 'If you are not there sitting at the table, helping to make decisions, someone else is going to make them for you. So you need to advocate for yourself.'"
The Next 50 Years
ʻImi Hoʻōla is celebrating its golden anniversary on October 28 at the Koʻolau Ballrooms. ʻImi graduate Dr. Angela Pratt will unveil a preview of a documentary chronicling the rich legacy of the program. Dr. Young will reflect on the evolution of ʻImi, while Dr. Palafox will serve as featured keynote speaker. Generations of ʻImi Hoʻōla graduates like Dr. Akaka will reminisce on this significant milestone.
"I think of Dr. Ben Young, Dr. Kekuni Blaisdell, Dr. Nanette Judd, and Dean Rogers back in the 70s. I was around when those guys were dreaming about this," Dr. Akaka said. "We are fulfilling the dream. When you look at the D-Dré's and the other ʻImi's, and what they've gone on to do, the quality of their work and the heart–it's their pono, humble, hard-working, and wanting to serve. I think they would be proud and happy that ʻImi is in good hands and on the path they always hoped and prayed for."
Check out our bonus 'Imi content below, including our ʻImi slideshow: