Higher Ed & the "Real World": University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo Center for Community Engagement

Grounding Ourselves in Equity, Relationships & Community

By Julie Mowrer

When educators are asked what has been learned over the past 14 months that they want to keep going forward, one answer that has resonated is the focus on student wellbeing. While research has long shown that students’ sense of belonging and safety is essential to learning, risk-taking and growth, it has still held a lower place in education’s priority list. Pono Shim (2020) refers to this much-needed shift in education as moving from

…transactional to relational, from corrective to connective.

Building relationships and making connections with others has surfaced during the pandemic as one of the most important aspects of student success and learning. At UH Hilo, the isolation and lack of social support has been seen in student cases of depression, anxiety, academic success, and difficulty in managing emotions and relationships (C. Kuo, personal communication, June 7, 2021).

In times of crisis, one of the most powerful things we can do is to provide students and faculty with opportunities to contribute in positive ways. This can help relieve feelings of helplessness that often contribute to anxiety and depression. In considering what the Center for Community Engagement (CCE) might offer, I was reminded of this definition of innovation:

Innovation is what occurs when there is a collision of differences in a culture of trust. Trust is what allows for differences to flourish into creativity and synergy rather than distrust and divisiveness, what moves teams from basic coordination to true collaboration, and from playing it safe to taking risks that are the foundation of innovation (Covey, 2018).

I had also been thinking about the inequities of opportunities for our students. We know that most of our students are not able to focus four years of their life solely on school. They are working, sometimes full-time, or taking care of children or parents, or juggling other combinations of responsibilities. How can we create opportunities that are truly accessible to all students? 

Well-resourced students often have access to powerful learning experience. Equity demands that all young people have access (Vander Ark, 2019).

The CCE was extremely fortunate to be awarded funding from the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund (GEER) to pilot a Bonner program, a national student leadership program that is grounded in engaging with community. One thing that makes this program unique is that it taps into the 7% of Federal Work Study funds that are required to be used for community engagement, so that students can be paid for their work in the program.

In addition, it moves beyond volunteerism, and engages students for four years in leadership training, basic service to a variety of community organizations, and gradually builds students’ self-awareness and skills to commit to a multi-year partnership with an organization they believe in. We know, from the many conversations we’ve had with community organizations, that they want to connect and support students, but it can be a significant amount of time and energy that is needed to really mentor someone successfully. By building students’ skills as a cohort and creating multi-year relationships with organizations, the students have the time and support needed to contribute in meaningful ways so the goal of reciprocity can be achieved.

Once students have made a proposal to the organization of their choice, they can gradually move from offering basic service to capacity building. This requires that students dig into the root causes of social or environmental issues, whether they revolve around policy, infrastructure, or other various influences. The Bonner Leaders are challenged to do research to learn more and design capstone projects with guidance from a team of faculty, staff and community mentors. 

Our hope is that the program will provide a network of peers, mentors from the university, the community and the wider Bonner network, offering connections and a web of support for students to lean on when challenges occur. The building of trust from students to faculty to staff to community will, over time, allow for our differences to truly serve as our greatest asset because they are what allow for innovation to occur.

Covey, S. (2018). Innovating at the speed of trust. https://resources.franklincovey.com/the-speed-of-trust/innovating-at-the-speed-of-trust/

Vander Ark, T. (2019, October 2). What is 21st century learning? How do we get more? Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/tomvanderark/2019/10/02/what-is-21st-century-learning-how-do-we-get-more/?sh=16f6548725bc