Cliff Kapono wearing surf clothing and laboratory coat

Surfer-Scientist & Keynote Speaker: Cliff Kapono Presents at Undergraduate Experiences Symposium

November 1, 2021

CU Denver’s 16th annual Undergraduate Experiences Symposium brought together staff and faculty on Oct. 22. The UE Symposium featured guest speaker Cliff Kapono, PhD, a professional surfer and an assistant professor at Arizona State University’s new Center for Global Discovery and Conservation Science in Hilo, Hawai’i. His presentation, “Belonging, Identity, and Success,” focused on his own experience as an Indigenous person entering the world of academia. 

Kapono, a Native Hawaiian, said he was not exactly the teacher’s pet. He discussed how he had trouble getting interested in school and how angry he’d been as a teenager. As a surfer and an ocean lover, he was troubled by how humans were mistreating the planet. His anger also stemmed from his Indigenous identity, as he suffered from intergenerational trauma and lacked a sense of belonging.  

Kapono discussed how teachers must have viewed him as just one of those apathetic kids in the back of the classroom. He made it through high school and continued on to college, but he struggled academically (one dean told him perhaps he wasn’t cut out for college). Luckily, other professors saw his passion for conservation and encouraged him to continue. He went on to earn his doctorate degree and become a chemist, as well as a filmmaker, journalist, and college professor. 

Kapono advocated for faculty and staff to pay attention to students like him. He discussed the value of students’ passions (like surfing) and of different forms of knowledge. He also challenged faculty to change their curriculum and assessment methods to accommodate nontraditional learners.   

When asked about ways to encourage students like him, Kapono said, “Cater your teaching to more students—that could be a good first step.”