Skip to content →

Chancellor’s Monthly Column, April 2020: The meaning of essential

In Governor Ige’s stay-at-home order, he exempted a number of “essential” services: health care, first responders, gas stations and grocery stores, mail and shipping, transportation, and, indeed, education. Being on that list gives us in higher education a special responsibility.

Bonnie Irwin
Bonnie D. Irwin

How do we define “essential”? It’s been used in many ways in recent weeks, and how we understand it differs with the context and the speaker.

When helping my mother in California stock up for stay-at-home living, essential meant coffee, butter, and, yes, toilet paper. Upon returning, when my husband went to the store so I could stay in self quarantine, it meant chicken soup and chocolate cake. My mother’s list demonstrates her simpler needs, learned from growing up in the depression. Mine are built around that which brings me comfort. In both cases, however, “essential” also was limited to what we need for the next two weeks, immediate needs. I am confident that the supply chains are intact.

When we think of what essential means at the university we also distinguish between immediate needs and long-term success. If we had a hurricane bearing down on us, our sense of immediacy would be quite different than what we need now for the long haul of the rest of the semester and perhaps beyond.

In Governor Ige’s stay-at-home order, he exempted a number of “essential” services: health care, first responders, gas stations and grocery stores, mail and shipping, transportation, and, indeed, education. Being on that list gives us in higher education a special responsibility, both to our students, some of whom are still living in our residence halls, and our community, which depends upon us to continue building toward the future. Our students and their families have made an investment in us; we are essential to their success.

On campus we need security, maintenance and custodial staff, housing staff, library staff, mail room staff, and many others who cannot do their work from home. We also need all those people who are working at home on our behalf because each of us has an important role to play in keeping our university functioning and keeping our students on track.

We have folks working on campus who would rather be home; we have folks at home who would rather be at the office. Our specific roles largely determine how and where we work, but all of us need to cooperate in order to see our students through to the finish line.

Sometimes those of us who do not have direct contact with students very often can feel that our efforts are not actually critical for student success, but each one of us plays a role in keeping our institution healthy and available to our students and community.

All of the above are “essentials” in one way or another, but each of us has other things in our lives that we consider essential. A walk in nature to appreciate the ‘āina, a piece of art or music that moves us, a book that lets us escape to another world, even for a short while.

In the end, however, the thing that might be most essential is human connection. As I see examples from across the island and the world of people stepping up to help others—whether it is reserving special shopping hours for kupuna, providing meals for those keiki who depend on school lunches, sewing face masks for medical professionals, or sharing helpful resources to cheer up someone—I know we will come out on the other side of this crisis stronger.

We all need one another, and in that regard, each of us is essential.

Aloha to you and yours. Stay safe.

Bonnie D. Irwin

Published in All Posts Remarks, Messages, & Writings