Kevin Tangonan - Alumni Feature

Catching up with Kevin Tangonan

As a freshman at James Campbell High School on Oahu, Kevin Tangonan already had a growing interest in global affairs. He started participating in PAAC’s after-school Global Studies class in 2008 and became a “full-fledged PAAC member” in his junior and senior years, joining friends in the after-school OneWorld Now! Arabic Language & Global Leadership Program. Kevin also participated in the Seattle Get Global Youth Conferences, the Spring/Fall Conferences of the Global Vision Summit (GVS), the PAAC WorldQuest competition, and studied abroad in Morocco in July 2012.


Kevin earned his bachelor’s degree in international relations and master’s degree in diplomacy and military studies from Hawaii Pacific University (HPU). As an undergraduate, he studied abroad in South Korea for a year-long exchange program. He is currently pursuing a PhD in South Korea, conducting field research on North-South relations on a full-ride scholarship through Pusan National University’s PhD International Area & Cooperation Studies program.



What did you enjoy most about participating in PAAC programs in high school?

I enjoyed the interesting excursions outside James Campbell High School to attend the GVS and conferences, networking with other students from other schools, and learning about global issues through fun and interactive methods like the various simulations.


In high school I organized the largest student delegation (nearly 100 students and 20 teachers) from James Campbell High School to see the Dalai Lama’s talk at the University of Hawaii. I handled everything from correspondence with the bus company to invoicing, completing the necessary paperwork, communicating with teachers and the students, and working with the Hawaii Community Foundation to secure tickets.


How did PAAC help shape your goals after high school?

PAAC helped enlighten me to world affairs and got me interested in pursuing diplomacy as a career. PAAC’s Global Leadership Program (GLP) helped me leave my comfort zone and become more extroverted. I became more ambitious (nothing is beyond my reach if I strive for it), more involved (taking on leadership roles in various organizations and organizing events), and more knowledgeable (on global subjects, becoming more adept at relating to individuals from all over the world).


PAAC also helped me communicate more diplomatically and interculturally, since many of my first interactions with international students came through conferences and summits in high school.


Tell us more about your career after graduating from college.

After earning my bachelor’s degree, I worked in admissions operations at HPU. I briefly returned to South Korea to pursue a master’s degree in international relations at Sogang University on a full-ride scholarship and came back to Hawaii for several years to help take care of my dad, who had a stroke.


I was offered a position at HPU leading the International Visiting Student Program, and I enrolled in the master’s program in diplomacy and military studies. I also worked as assistant director of International Admissions.


My work during the COVID-19 pandemic to grow the university’s International Visiting Student Program was acknowledged by the university’s president. Hawaii was one of the only locations in the world accepting international students for the fall 2020 semester onward, as many institutions halted international recruitment. At its peak, I admitted and hosted more than 200 international students – the largest international student population during the pandemic in Hawaii, and likely one of the largest in the United States. After I left HPU in fall 2021, more than 300 international students were enrolled. It was the largest incoming student population – surpassing degree-seeking international, domestic (Hawaii and U.S. mainland) and graduate recruitment efforts.


My father passed away in January 2021, and with his passing, he would have wanted me to continue my academic and professional pursuits, so I enrolled in Pusan National University’s PhD International Area & Cooperation Studies program. I have worked in a variety of positions as a freelancer since returning to South Korea in 2021 – mainly as an English teacher – but I am also a graduate assistant, cultural writer, Education Abroad researcher, and history expert. I’ve presented my research at a variety of conferences and seminars.


I’ve visited more than 20 countries, living in South Korea for a total of 3 years – in Asan, Seoul and currently in Busan.


Any other PAAC or career highlights you would like to share?

After returning from my initial exchange experience in South Korea, I was invited to participate in the 2015 Conference on Diversity in International Affairs at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, D.C., as a representative of Hawaii and OneWorld Now! I have also been nominated to serve on Hawaii’s NAFSA (Association of International Educators) Region XII Board representing the Education Abroad community.


What can Hawaii high school students do today to best prepare themselves for a career in global affairs?

Students should join PAAC, first and foremost – it is a life-changing experience that will help open doors when pursuing a career in global affairs. They should also learn a foreign language to delve deeper in the cultural aspect and gain the context to succeed if they want to pursue a specialization in a specific country. They should also consider studying abroad. Build the foundation through language learning, cultural learning, and logistics planning, whether it will be in high school or in university. Studying abroad will build lifelong skills for work in global affairs, such as intercultural communications, independence, improved language competency, and adaptability to foreign environments.


How have you stayed involved with PAAC?

Since graduating from high school in 2012 until August 2021, I volunteered with PAAC through its many events, such as the Global Vision Summit and conferences. I have served as an in-country alumni resource for PAAC in South Korea, and I accompanied Study Tour students as a chaperone in Seoul in 2014.



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