On February 10, the University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo held a student success summit entitled, “Their Journey is Our Success.” Attended by over 50 people, the vast majority in person, we explored how we define student success on our campus; what the journey of a typical student looks like and potential barriers they might face along the way, and we dove into some of the data that we have about student grades, persistence, completion. The participants had opportunity to discuss issues in small groups, and we vowed to do more such sessions in the future.
Even on a campus as small as UH Hilo, faculty and staff can become siloed in their various units, but we know that students do not perceive those divisions. One of the great takeaways from the event was that we need to bring people together across departments much more often, and doing so in person seems to be a better way to cross those boundaries than the ubiquitous Zoom meetings.
The working definition of student success at UH Hilo that is posted on our website begins like this: “Successful UH Hilo students earn their intended degrees from our campus or elsewhere within 150% of normal time and find employment or continue their students within one year of graduation.” Within 150% means that students graduate within six years, which is one of the standards that we are held to.
Of course, some students take longer and many take a shorter time to finish degrees. But research shows that for many students, the longer the degree takes, the less likely they are to finish, so we urge them to take 15 credits per semester if they can. The average “unit load” at UH Hilo is just over 14, so weʻre in good shape there.
One might think it odd that our definition of student success allows for students to graduate elsewhere, but we find that many students who start at UH Hilo discover that their goals change, and they might decide that what they need lies elsewhere. Engineering is an example of that. Because UH Hilo does not currently have an engineering degree, we find that students who wish to become engineers transfer to UH Mānoa or to a university on the continent. If we have prepared them well for that journey, that is a win for us and the student.
Other students may find that once they start a four-year degree, their heartʻs desire is actually a career that might be better served by one of the UH community colleges. That is okay, too, and we might very well get that student back later in life when their goals change again. Of course, our preference is that the students we recruit are the ones who wish to be here for the programs we offer at both the undergraduate and graduate level.
At our event, we discussed how every person on campus plays a role in the success of our students. Students learn better in comfortable spaces that are designed for learning. We use the RIM (renovate, improve, modernize) money we get from the state to update our facilities, make sure the classrooms are climate controlled, and create spaces that students want to be in. Thus our facilities, budget, and building and grounds staff play an important role in student success, even if they rarely interact directly with students.
Because students do not necessarily understand the silos we create, it is important that we put students first in all our interactions with them. Many of us remember being shuffled from office to office when we were students, and our aim at UH Hilo is to not perpetuate that tradition. The rule in my office is that if we are not the office that can address a studentʻs problem, we will be their next-to-last stop. We will figure out where they need to go, and call over to that other office and let them know that we are sending a student their way.
Of course, teaching and learning is at the center of what we do, and our faculty do it well, but the rest of us also have a key role to play in our studentsʻ journeys.
The Hawai‘i State Legislature is opening its 2023 session this month and I am writing this column in between hearings. Foremost on my mind are our priorities at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo, and I’d like to share my thoughts with you.
Restoring our general budget and athletics budget will allow us to come out of the austerity measures we had to put into place during the pandemic. This allows us to convert temporary positions to more permanent hires and make sure that the students have the support they need in an environment conducive to learning. And support for our athletics program continues to be an important piece of our community stewardship. It has been a delight to see more fans on the sidelines and in the bleachers again, cheering on our Vulcans.
Security and IT positions are backbone functions that support the entire campus. We used to contract out for security, but the state wants us to hire outright, so we are hiring security into civil service lines and asking for additional ones so that we may ensure the safety and security of our campus.
We are also asking for student support positions, including a career/internship coordinator. Internships are one of the most valuable out-of-class experiences we can provide our students, and having more centralized support will allow us to work with our local community to create more internship opportunities and make sure that these are high quality experiences that complement our students’ classroom learning. There are also numerous compliance requirements for internships that will be much easier to track with a centralized support person.
The other related position is a transfer coordinator, which will help us provide seamless transfer from the UH community colleges, especially Hawai‘i Community College, and mainland CCs.
Regarding administration of justice, students who want to go into law enforcement cannot do so straight out of high school—they have to be 21 or older. So it makes sense to pursue a university degree, giving them the needed knowledge to not only enforce the law but also understand administration of justice in the context of the communities we serve. This is also the only free-standing program for this degree in the UH system. We can thus serve other Hawai‘i residents outside our island.
In addition, nursing positions are key to continuing our invaluable contributions to building a strong health care system on our island. This was made crystal clear during the pandemic as our graduates, both recent and long-standing alumni, rose to the occasion with the skills necessary to help see us through this most difficult time.
Curriculum on sustainable agribusiness helps us prepare local students for the kinds of agricultural needs found on our island. We seek to integrate more business skills in our ag programs that allow our graduates to understand the full range of issues confronting growers today.
After the deluge of challenges during the pandemic, UH Hilo is in a strong position to emerge with continued and unwavering dedication to our primary mission: to challenge students to reach their highest level of academic achievement. The goal is to improve the quality of life for families and communities by producing highly skilled graduates who can answer the workforce needs of our island, state, and region.
With the full support of the State Legislature, we can continue to get the job done.
In last month’s column, I wrote about enrollment trends and the associated data collecting we are doing to understand those trends. I asked the question: Why do certain students choose UH Hilo and how do we know who will thrive here? This is the overarching question that our recent data efforts seek to answer.
An interesting segment of our student population to look at is our international students, who are about 7% of UH Hilo’s total student body and enrich our entire campus in multitude of ways.
International students demonstrate higher retention rates than students from other geographic areas. Per our recent accreditation report, since fall 2015 UH Hilo has retained 78% of international students, the highest of any cohort. Once our international students make the choice to come to UH Hilo, they stick around! Indeed, during the pandemic, many of our international students were with us the whole time. Because they could not get home, UH Hilo worked hard to make them feel welcome on campus throughout the pandemic.
We have a healthy student representation from Europe and the Americas but most of our international students at UH Hilo come from the Pacific-Asia region. To answer the question about why they choose UH Hilo and why they stay, the first thing that stands out is their choice of programs, notably environmental and conservation programs such as marine science and geography and environmental studies, where their classroom is often a coral reef or a lava field.
Other popular majors are business, accounting, and political science. Still others come to us for the opportunity to compete in intercollegiate athletics. Many of these students use what they have learned in our classes and our community to help back home.
For students from the Pacific Islands, the diverse campus and island communities make it a comfortable, natural fit for them here. The university’s cultural and ethnic diversity, that I wrote about in last month’s column as being one of our greatest strengths, is highly valued by our international students—they feel welcome and accepted.
They also perceive and experience Hilo as a safe place to live that is conducive to studying, which has become increasingly important to international students given the attention that gun violence in the U.S. gets around the world. International students also perceive and experience UH Hilo as a welcoming place for all people; this, too, has become increasingly important for international students looking to study in the U.S. in light of perceptions of anti-immigrant sentiment in the U.S.
Once these students are with us, they have a wide range of support services available. The International Student Services program provides an array of services intentionally designed to meet their needs and interests. The program strives to offer a “one-stop shop” of services that are holistic and comprehensive and begin from the time a student is admitted through graduation and beyond.
International students are thriving in their academics and excelling right through to graduation. After graduation, many return to their homelands to share their new-found knowledge and skills with their communities.
Like many of our alumni, our international graduates are doing great things! Louisa Ponnnampalan, a 2003 alumna from Malaysia, for example, is the chair and co-founder of the MareCet Research Organization, Malaysia’s first nonprofit organization dedicated to the research and conservation of marine mammals and their environment. Alumna Uduch Sengebau Senior from Palau is a prominent judge, lawyer, and politician who currently serves as the vice president and minister of justice in her home community.
We are understandably proud of all our graduates, who are making contributions both locally here on island and also across the globe. One of the great benefits of our emerging from the pandemic is that we can once again welcome students not only from our local communities, but from across the globe. We can also once again provide opportunity for Hawai‘i Island students to study abroad. Our university truly has a global impact and we welcome the world to Hilo.