Trailblazer for Hawai‘i’s Community Colleges

Melvin Inamasu and Violet Harada
Courtesy: Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai‘i

Editor’s note: “Honoring the Legacy” is a partnership between The Hawai‘i Herald and the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai‘i. It celebrates the achievements of Japanese American men and women who live the values of earlier generations and continue their proud legacy. The authors are retired physician Melvin Inamasu and Violet Harada, a professor emeritus at the University of Hawai‘i at Mänoa. Both volunteer with JCCH. The complete interview with Joyce Tsunoda, the subject of this month’s profile, is available at the JCCH Tokioka Heritage Resource Center. It can also be read online at

Joyce Tsunoda, 2021. (Photos courtesy of Joyce Tsunoda)

Grit, gumption and grace define Joyce Sachiko Nishimura Tsunoda. She has always been a risk taker and innovator. It’s no surprise that Tsunoda was the first woman of Asian American descent in the U.S. to serve as chancellor for a multi-campus community college system.

Childhood in Manchuria

Born in 1938 in Amagasaki in the Hyogo Prefecture, Tsunoda had a unique early childhood in Japan and Manchuria. Her father, Yukio Nishimura, was a star baseball player for Kansai University and went on to join a professional baseball team, the Hanshin Tigers. Her mother, Edith Higashi, was a Nisei raised in Hale‘iwa, who happened to be on a ship returning from a trip to Japan when she met Yukio who was coming to Hawai‘i to play friendship baseball games. A shipboard romance blossomed, and they married in 1937. The Nishimuras made a home with their daughters in Port Dalian, Manchuria, where Yukio worked for a private company while continuing to play baseball for that company until he was conscripted in the Japanese Army in 1944. Tragically, he died in the Philippines a year later.

Nishimura Yukio during his days with the Hanshin Tigers, 1937-1939.

Edith and her four daughters had to remain in Manchuria for two years after Yukio’s death. Spunky eight-year-old Tsunoda, the eldest of the girls, decided to be entrepreneurial. She put down straw mats on the street outside the family’s apartment and sold “all kinds of goods from home that we wouldn’t take back to Japan.” She said the Chinese would often buy things and the Russian soldiers were also good customers. She laughed, “I would tell the neighbors, that for a commission, I would sell for them as well.” Because the schools were closed, she felt this was one way to contribute to the family’s income.

Returning to Hawai‘i

The young family finally repatriated to Japan where they stayed with Yukio’s family before returning to Hawai‘i in 1948. Hawai‘i was a total cultural change for 10-year-old Tsunoda and her sisters. Up to that point, they had spoken only Japanese and had to learn English at Hale‘iwa Elementary School. Tsunoda said she didn’t even know that her mother could speak English since the entire family only used Japanese until they settled back in Hawai‘i. Tsunoda credited her third-grade teacher, Miss Fannie Howe, for patiently teaching her English. Miss Howe gave her a Dick and Jane reader and would come over and point to pictures in the book. Tsunoda chuckled, “For example, she would point at a dog, and I would say inu and she would say ‘No, no. Say dog.’” An ardent reader who loved borrowing books from her school library, she quickly mastered English and progressed rapidly in her studies.

Tsunoda was a self-motivated student, and she credited another teacher at Leilehua Intermediate and High School, Miss Kikuchi, for tutoring her in algebra. She was always a curious learner and “enjoyed studying and reading.” In 1956, she graduated as valedictorian. While working on a teaching degree at University of Hawai‘i, she was also passionate about studying chemistry. From 1958 to 1966, she received scholarships and grants including one from the National Science Foundation to pursue undergraduate through doctoral degrees in chemistry.  

Joining the Community College Movement

In the 1960s and 1970s, the community college movement had taken hold in Hawai‘i. Tsunoda described how national legislation for community colleges initiated by the Truman Commission led to Act 39 in 1964 that established the community college system in Hawai‘i. This landmark legislation transferred the technical schools from the Hawai‘i Department of Education to UH. Importantly, it offered students the first two years of college education along with the vocational track at a low tuition rate. In 1970, the UH Board of Regents passed a Resolution of Community Colleges Statement that was authored by Richard Kosaki, acting UH Mänoa Chancellor, who was credited with being the architect of the UH community college system.

Lei-covered, Tsunoda happily stands with her mother, at her graduation from Leilehua High School in Wahiawa, 1956.

This was also about the time that Leonard Tuthill, a UH zoology professor, told Tsunoda to “come with me to start a community college.” He took her to an area covered with kiawe bushes in Pearl Harbor’s West Loch and shared his vision of a new type of two-year college being constructed at the location. Intrigued by the invitation, Tsunoda saw this “as a grand opportunity to help start a new kind of higher education” and accepted a chemistry teaching position in 1968 at Leeward Community College. This became the first community college in the state with Tuthill as provost. Tsunoda recalled that the buildings were not ready when the college started. “We used an abandoned elementary school across the street from where Pearl City Tavern was. My chem lab was in the school’s library. I had to share that space with the bookstore,” she said.

Tsunoda teaching in the newly built chemistry laboratory at LCC in the early 1970s.

Tsunoda and her faculty colleagues soon realized that the open-door policy of a community college meant that they accepted a range of students including those with reading difficulties. She said, “We ended up tutoring them in reading along with our subject matter.” With her can-do attitude, Tsunoda saw this as an opportunity and not an obstacle. “We all got to know our students better and how to help them to learn.” 

She soon found herself gravitating from teaching toward administration. Tsunoda passionately embraced the concept of a college belonging to the community and she delved into creative ways to better know the needs of the Leeward community. She and her fellow teachers prepared spaghetti lunches for invited leaders of community associations and took them on campus tours. She also organized faculty groups to venture into the Waipahu community where she met leaders who involved her in legislative matters. 

In 1974 she became the LCC associate dean for Special Programs and Community Services, building partnerships with various agencies and associations. She also served as the LCC coordinator for federal grants and successfully competed for a coveted Advanced Institutional Development grant amounting to $2 million from the U.S. Department of Education’s Title III Program. 

Through all of this she was busy raising two daughters with her husband Peter, an accountant, whom she had married in 1968. As a Pearl City resident, Tsunoda was part of the West O‘ahu community, and old timers living in her neighborhood became friends who taught her about local politics. As an active member of the Momilani Community Association, she got a taste of political fundraising. She recalled, “It was my first exposure to the legislature, and I enjoyed it.” 

Becoming Provost at Kapi‘olani Community College

Her exceptional skills in building community support caught the attention of UH President Fujio Matsuda. Tsunoda said, “One day, he invited me to his office and said he wanted me to go to Kapi‘olani Community College and become its provost.” In 1976, she took on the job of leading KCC in building its current campus on the 76-acre plot at the foot of Diamond Head.

It was a daunting task that required creating an ambitious master plan for the new campus. 

She indicated that more than “fundraising,” she saw the importance of “community friend raising.” She astutely realized that segments of the public viewed the two-year college as a “larger technical school” and opposed funding for it. With her typical resourcefulness, she invited folks from the Fort Ruger area to visit KCC and learn about the benefits and advantages of a “college for the community.” She worked tirelessly with neighborhood associations and supportive legislators like Pat Saiki to get people to know more about the programs available at the college. 

Groundbreaking ceremony of the Kapi‘olani Community College, Diamond Head Campus, in January 1983. In the photo (from left) are then UH President Fujio Matsuda, State Senator Patricia Saiki, KCC Provost Joyce Tsunoda and ceremony officiating pastor.

Tsunoda attended almost daily legislative sessions to advocate for KCC and experienced endless rounds of criticism and grilling. Individuals like Saiki helped her to persevere. Tsunoda also attended meetings of the various community associations from Kaimukï and Kähala to Hawai‘i Kai. She organized faculty teams to meet with members of these groups and had them share firsthand what programs like food services and nursing contributed to the wellbeing of the community. In 1983, KCC celebrated groundbreaking ceremonies for the current campus that she described as a “total celebration of the college and the community.” Looking back, Tsunoda credited her achievements to the help she received from key legislators and community advisory councils as well as from her knowledgeable staff, faculty members and supportive family.

Leading the UH Community College System

Given Tsunoda’s accomplishments at KCC, President Matsuda appointed her chancellor for the entire UH community college system in 1983. Her job now became getting the seven community colleges to coordinate and articulate with one another and to also work with the four-year universities so that students could transfer from one campus to another without losing credits. In this capacity, she worked closely with the UH Board of Regents and participated in issues that impacted community colleges on a national level.

Throughout her exceptional career, Tsunoda’s driving vision has been to create learning institutions that sustain the values of a community. She was able to realize her goals by identifying the grassroots needs of the neighborhoods she served and demonstrating her singular talent in working effectively with community and legislative leaders.  

Three generations of doctorates: Joyce Tsunoda (left) pictured with her granddaughter Zoe Hernandez (middle) and daughter Brenda Hernandez in May 2021 in Tsunoda’s backyard upon receipt of Zoe’s law degree from Pepperdine University.

Pursuing Her Interests

Tsunoda retired in 2004. In the latter years of her career, she was a senior distinguished visiting scholar at the East-West Center and vice president for International Education at UH. These positions allowed her to visit Japan and establish a relationship with Japanese colleagues in the nation’s junior college network. 

Her visits also afforded her an opportunity to fulfill a lifelong dream: to research and complete the translation of a biography on her father’s baseball career and to author a sequel about her family’s experiences after he left for the war. She remains especially proud that her father has been enshrined in the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame in Tōkyō. Tsunoda says he possessed the spirit of a fighter. As a child, she recalled her father encouraging her to be an independent thinker. He would say, “Don’t do just because others do it. Do what you think you want to do.” It’s evident that she inherited her father’s indomitable spirit in the legacy she has built for higher education in Hawai‘i.


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