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Distinguished Alumni: Kathy Howa & Kalani Pe’a

Each October, just before the pigskin and parade hoopla of Homecoming weekend kicks into high gear, Colorado Mesa University faculty, alumni and former athletes receive their due as the ‘best-of-the-best.’

A Distinguished Faculty member, two Distinguished Alumni and two Hall of Honor athletic inductees are honored at the Victory Dinner. They take their place in the pantheon of dozens of other stand-out professors, students and athletes from previous years. They are recognized for the exceptional things they have done in the fields of scholastics, business, athletics, humanitarian aid and community service. These honors don’t end with engraved plaques and photos on the walls of hallways.

The accolades are paid forward in the form of scholarships. Distinguished Alumni donate to an annual scholarship that goes to a student chosen by the Distinguished Faculty each year. The amount of that scholarship is symbolic — $1,925. That is the year CMU was established as a junior college. The scholarship rewards deserving students and may be expanded in coming years.

The three awards give the university a chance to highlight exceptional graduates as well as put a spotlight on stand-out faculty members who have helped propel students to noteworthy accomplishments.

There was an Ice Age for girls in high school athletics, and Kathy Howa was there to watch the thaw.

Before she came to Mesa, Howa was a three-sport athlete at Hillcrest High in Midvale, Utah, at the dawn of Title IX. The federal law that was passed in 1972 protecting people from gender-based discrimination in education programming or activities, including athletics.

“I had never played organized sports before my sophomore year in high school, when our team won Utah’s first-ever girls state tournament,” said Howa, who went on to play volleyball and softball at Mesa. “I’m hoping we can help the young women of today understand how many women fought for the rights they now have to participate in athletics.”

Her high school opportunities paved the way for Howa to enjoy some of the most memorable experiences of her life at Mesa, including the chance to play in back-to-back national softball tournaments.

“We played 14 innings against Southern Utah in our second trip to nationals at Kearney, Nebraska. That’s still the record for the longest game in tournament history,” said Howa, who played third base and occasionally pitched for the Mavericks. “At one point, the rain came in and soaked everything, and they actually brought in helicopters to dry the field.”

Balancing athletics with academics was a challenge, she said, but Howa’s education at CMU facilitated a 27-year career as a teacher and Hall of Fame coach. At 59, this CMU Distinguished Alumni recipient is still an enthusiastic educator in Utah, and as a breast-cancer survivor she also crusades relentlessly for cancer research.

She founded the nonprofit Swing for Life, which typically raises around $50,000 per year for breast cancer research and exceeded the $1 million mark in total fundraising last year.

“I still love teaching and coaching,” said Howa, who has coached volleyball, basketball and softball. “Most rewarding is when one of my former athletes tells me that those were the best times of her life — that the experience made a difference in her character and helped shape her into the person she became.” 


Kathy Howa
Graduation year: 1986
Hometown: Midvale, Utah
Profession: Health and physical educator and coach
Most memorable book:
Hacking Classroom Management by Mike Roberts
Favorite vacation location: Jackson Hole/Yellowstone
Hobbies: Golfing and hiking
Favorite CMU professor:
Karen Wallace Perrin (kinesiology)
- YWCA Distinguished Service Award (2013)
- Utah Softball Hall of Fame (2011)
- Utah High School Activities Association Distinguished Service Award (2013)
- Sectional Coach of the Year National Federation of High School Coaches (2002)

The pathway toward a dream-come-true is seldom predictable, but Kalani Pe’a — a teacher, author and two-time Grammy-winning recording artist — said the education he received at Mesa helped prepare him for every detour.

Pe’a lives a life today that he only could have imagined as a child living on the Big Island of Hawaii, where he was raised by loving, hard-working parents in a pink trailer home with no running water, no electricity and a daily block of ice in place of a refrigerator.

“My parents taught me to be confident, but modest. My grandparents said, ‘Find something you’re good at, then do it well.’ And CMU gave me the wisdom, the knowledge and the confidence to excel at the things I’ve done,” said Pe’a, whose remarkable array of accomplishments make him a worthy recipient of CMU’s Distinguished Alumni honor.

“I wanted to major in music at CMU,” said Pe’a, who had won multiple singing contests as a youth. “But learning all of the technical aspects of music was a culture shock for me. In Hawaii, we sing from the heart.”

He earned a degree instead in mass communication then returned to Hawaii to study early childhood education. During the next decade, Pe’a created music and cultural curriculum for a preschool, and then designed music-based science, technology, engineering and math courses for grades 6-12.

After 10 years as an educator, Pe’a recorded his first album, won a 2017 Grammy Award in the Best Regional Roots category and watched his career take off. In 2019, he won again for his second album.

“Winning two Grammys helped me get a full-time job in music, start my own label and publishing company, and play to sellout audiences,” said Pe’a, who donates a large percentage of his proceeds to Alzheimer’s research in honor of his grandmother, who suffers from the disease.

“I am who I am because of the cultural values that were instilled in me as a proud Hawaiian, and because of Mesa, which gave me some of the best years of my life,” he said.

Kalani Pe’a
Graduation year: 2006
Hometown: Hilo, Hawaii
Profession: Entertainer, educator
Most memorable book: Love You Forever by Robert Munsch
Favorite vacation location:
San Francisco, California and Maui, Hawaii
Hobbies: Drawing, tennis
Favorite CMU professor:
Jack Delmore (music), Byron Evers (mass communication) and Morris Brown (public relations ethics)
- 2017 and 2019 won Grammy Awards in the Best Regional Roots category
- Being an educator
- Learning to ski on Powderhorn Mountain Resort’s bunny slope

The Alumni Association Board of Directors is tasked with choosing two alumni who most deserve the award for their community involvement, their professional accomplishments and their continued association with CMU. Jared Meier, director of the Alumni Association, said he feels that the bar is set a little higher every year as alumni hit peak years in their professions. Nominations usually come from friends, family or associates of nominees, but they can also be self-nominated.


Written by Dennis Taylor