Monday, May 10, 1999

Victoria "Vicky" Lia will graduate
tonight from chaminade university.

Two kids, college,
age 32? Can do!

A local woman overcomes
major obstacles to earn
two master's degrees

By Rod Ohira


There's no quit in Victoria "Vicky" Lia.

Orphaned twice by age 17, she went on to attain her educational goals at 32 while working and raising a family.

"I don't agree with people who say 'I can't do it' or 'I don't have time' when it comes to going to school," said Lia, who will receive master's degrees in public and business administration tonight from Chaminade University.

"If you want it, you'll find a way."

When their two children were able to attend preschool, Lia and her husband, Franklin, worked out an arrangement where she would continue working nights and attend school during the day.

It took eight years for Lia to attain her educational goals.

She graduated with honors from Leeward Community College and University of Hawaii-West Oahu before pursuing her master's degrees in 1997.

"Nothing's ever been handed to her. Vicky's had to work for everything," said Gail Hironaka, Queen Liliuokalani Children's Center Waianae Coast unit manager. "She's a remarkable young woman.

"Vicky was raised by a grandmother who taught her terrific values about education and hard work."

Lia's grandmother, Mabel Perez, suffered from emphysema and used a wheelchair but provided stability in the lives of her two granddaughters after their single-parent mother, Gwendolyn Perez, died of cancer when Lia was just 10.

Mabel Perez lived with her granddaughters in Mililani for five years before deciding on a move to Kaneohe to be closer to relatives.

"She was worried that if she died, my sister and I would be alone again," said Lia, who at the time was a sophomore student body vice president and National Honor Society member at Mililani High. "I didn't want to go."

The family moved to Kaneohe over the summer, and Lia enrolled at Castle High School for her junior year.

She graduated early, at 16, and was looking forward to attending college on the mainland.

"Back then, Hawaiian girls who had no parents and no money were expected to graduate and find a job," said Lia, who graduated No. 1 in her class.

"I know my grandmother loved me, but she saw my role as that, not going away to college.

"We had a big argument and I ran away. Before I left for Seattle University, I went to see her and I think she understood what I had to do."

The Queen Liliuokalani Trust paid for her airfare and she had enough funds from scholarships to pay for schooling in Seattle.

Lia did well at Seattle University, but she returned home after her first year when her grandmother's health took a turn for the worse. Perez died soon after Lia returned home.

"I was 17, my sister 13 and we were alone again," she said. "But at least we had each other."

An aunt, Gwen Fernandez, was named the girls' guardian, and with assistance from the Queen Liliuokalani Children's Center, they were allowed to live on their own in Kaneohe.

"They saw we were capable of doing it," Lia said. "Mostly, we were taking care of grandma. We paid all the bills, did the shopping, cooking and cleaning."

When Joan was admitted to Kamehameha Schools as a boarding eighth-grade student, Lia was working part time and attending Chaminade.

Vicky then decided to attend school in California and be closer to her boyfriend, Franklin Lia, whom she had met while attending a Seventh-Day Adventist church in Kaneohe.

They returned to Hawaii in 1985 when Franklin got out of the Navy. He became a welder, while Vicky worked at Bank of Hawaii.

The couple's first child, born premature, died one day after birth.

The couple were married in 1987, shortly before Lia gave birth to daughter Kaliana, who will be a seventh-grader at Kamehameha Schools this fall.

The Lias also have a son, Liokea, 11.

"Franklin and I decided that our children come first, so he worked days as a welder and I worked at night," said Lia, who went to work at Kaiser Hospital as a medical records clerk in 1987.

"When the kids went to preschool in 1991, I started taking courses at Leeward. I'd work from 4 p.m. to midnight, 32 hours a week, come home and sleep for a while, then drop the children at preschool and go to class."

Shirley Cavanaugh, communications director for the Office of the State Senate President, described Lia as a "survivor and role model."

"She's always looking ahead," Cavanaugh said. "While she was working on her undergraduate degree, she was already pointing for a master's.

"Before she completed her master's, she was looking forward to a possible career in the Air Force. Vicky looks back on all that's happened to her and says, 'OK, it's happened and I'm a better person for it.'

"She has this spiritual inner quality that allows her to take what happens to her and make it better. It's like they say, 'When God hands you lemons, you make lemonade.' "

Lia has applied for a hospital administration position that will require her to join the Air Force if she's accepted. "I'm competing for one national slot and won't know until June," she said.

"I want it because I think it'll give Franklin his chance to go back to school and find his niche. He got hurt welding and went into security work and I know he wants more."

Lia is anxious to put her education to work.

"I'm a wife, mother and educated Hawaiian woman," she says. "I just need an opportunity to show what I can do."

With her academic degrees, a home in Kapolei and a supportive family, she considers herself lucky. "I don't believe in regrets because everything that has happened to us has made my sister and I what we are today," Lia said. "It's been an adventure, but that's life.

"Granted, we didn't have money or a car but are those things important? The people who have helped us along is what's important to me."

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