Elaine Kihara’s grandfather, Kaichiro, toiled in the fields of Hawaii as an indentured servant. It took him years to pay off his debt.

Kihara’s father, Hayato, was forced from his studies at UC Berkeley and into a Japanese internment camp. Eventually, he earned his doctorate in biochemistry from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and spent most of his career heading a research lab at the former Pacific State Hospital in Pomona, Calif.

Those family stories of hardship and perseverance are part of what drives Kihara, an academic preceptor at Oakes College. It’s also part of the reason the step-grandmother of six was named this year’s recipient of UC Santa Cruz’s Outstanding Staff Award. Her colleagues say this descendant of immigrants is wise, thoughtful, and compassionate — especially toward those who are working to be the first in their family to get a college degree.

“If you are the child of immigrants, you know there is a lot of hope in you; that people are depending on your success,” says the soft-spoken 58-year-old. At the same time, there may be cultural pressure to quit school and work in the family business or help parents out of financial difficulties.

Kihara makes it her job to help students navigate that tricky push-pull.

“I believe everyone should get the best education possible,” says Kihara. “These students have so much potential, I want them to get as much as they can out of college.”

Sitting in her bright, art-studded office, Kihara recalls 20-plus years of students sitting nervously next to her desk or flopping onto her comfortable couch to recount problems they face. They tell stories of the death of a parent, of looming foreclosures, of sudden illnesses. They tell of 30-hour work weeks that make it hard to study or of facing another year of college because budget cuts made it impossible to get the classes they need for their major.  

“Our job is to help students problem-solve and think of options,” says Kihara, noting current students are facing the quadruple-burden of a weak job market, an insecure economy, rising tuition, and university belt-tightening. It’s an anxious time.

On busy days, 18 students may come through Kihara’s door, often needing her deep understanding of university policy and procedure to get them out of tough situations. Once, she was called upon to help arrange the quick transfer of a student who suddenly became the caregiver for her siblings after her mother and sister were murdered.

“Elaine’s dedication toward students’ success is immeasurable; she goes above and beyond to help students get where they need to be,” says Marie Yoo, an academic preceptor at Stevenson College.

Says Oakes Provost Kimberly Lau: “She (Kihara) is respected and beloved because of her openness, her sincerity, and her genuine respect for others. If Oakes were a sports team, Elaine would be voted ‘most valuable player’ by outsiders and elected team captain by insiders.”

Kihara smiles when she talks of being honored by the university and her colleagues.“I wish my parents were alive because they would have liked it that I got an award for working hard. They would have been proud of me.” 

Elaine Kihara will receive a commemorative plaque from Chancellor Blumenthal at the Staff Appreciation Picnic. The annual event will take place at the East Field on Wednesday, May 22.