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Paying it Forward

See-Ming Yim worked hard to build a career in electrical engineering—with the support of many others. Now, he’s finding ways to give back.

See-Ming Yim

When See-Ming Yim’s family emigrated from Hong Kong to Hawai‘i in 1991, in many ways, they had to go back to square one. Yim’s father had been a successful goods trader, but found it difficult to transfer those skills to Hawai‘i, making it a challenge to make ends meet.

Yim, who was eight at the time, says he’s always appreciated the sacrifices his parents made. “Growing up,” he says, “we didn’t have too much, but my parents always tried to provide everything they could for me and my brother.”

As with many immigrant families, expectations were high for the next generation. When it came time for Yim to enter high school, his parents managed to get him into ‘Iolani School, covering the costs with the support of scholarships. When, half-way through, his mother became ill, Yim began pitching in financially himself with a part-time job at Waikīkī Health. It was here that Yim first came face-to-face with the benefits of philanthropy.

Not only did he get to see the impact of the affordable services that Waikīkī Health provided, particularly among the houseless populations around the island, one of his duties was to help with the nonprofit’s donation drives. “I got to see the generosity of people,” he says. “People would donate $25,000, and just list themselves as ‘anonymous,’ and you could tell it was someone who just wanted to help.”

After high school, Yim pursued a degree in electrical engineering from the Illinois Institute of Technology—again with the help of financial aid. Illinois Tech subsidized part of the cost, and Yim also received a 4-year scholarship through the Hawai‘i Community Foundation (HCF). “It was $5,000 a year, which, for me at the time, was a lot of money,” he says. “It really helped get me through the program.”

Upon graduating in 2004, See-Ming returned to Hawai‘i and started building a career, first with Hawaiian Electric Co., then with Tesoro and Coffman Engineers, before becoming an independent engineering consultant.

As he built, he never forgot the many ways in which others had helped him along the way. “Since my experience in high school, I’ve always liked to volunteer,” Yim says. “Throughout the years, [my wife, Jessica Lo, and I] always make sure to volunteer here and there. It’s just become a part of me.”

One of his favorite volunteer experiences has been with Family Promise of Hawai‘i, which helps underresourced families gain access to stable, long-term housing through a range of support services. Yim saw parallels between these families, many of whom recently moved from Micronesia, and his own. “We would play with the kids while their parents were in classes learning about how to get a job and how to save money,” he says. “Education is so important for getting access to opportunities.”

As Yim’s career brought financial stability, he and Jessica have also been making financial contributions to causes they care about. “We started small, but consistent, and we’ve been building from there,” he says.

Family Promise of Hawai‘i receives regular donations from the couple, and the Yim’s also make an annual donation to HCF’s Stronger Together Hawai‘i Scholarship Fund, which aims to improve Hawai‘i students’ success in postsecondary education.

Yim’s ultimate goal is to set up a scholarship fund that will continue in perpetuity. “My mom always taught me—and showed me—the beauty of helping others. I feel like you’ve got to be part of the community, you’ve got to make the community what you want it to be.”

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