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Chancellor’s Monthly Column, August 2020: Ready to launch, a new environment for higher education

Bonnie Irwin
Bonnie Irwin

We are less than month away from the opening of the fall semester at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo. The opening of a new semester is a time of great joy and anticipation, as new students begin their academic journeys with us and we welcome back our continuing students. New students often bring with them some fears and anxiety as they enter this new chapter of their lives, but this year, especially, they are not alone. The world has changed utterly in the last six months.

The summer has flown by as working teams on campus have created physical distancing and cleaning protocols. The UH systemwide health check-in app will be released this month, and we have made arrangements for periodic testing to be available for our campus community. Faculty are retooling courses to make sure that both students on campus in person and those attending online will have high quality learning experiences, and we will get as close as we can to a technology-mediated sense of community and aloha for those students who will not be able to join us physically.

Despite all the preparations, however, many are anxious, as has been obvious by the myriad questions coming from faculty and staff, parents and students, and the local community. Parents want to know that their students will be academically and personally supported once they leave their family with whom they have been hunkering down. The local community wants to know that the incoming students will act responsibly, obey the rules of quarantine, and wear their masks when out in public. Campus employees want to know that we are aware of the challenges they may face with their own children learning from home certain days every week, and hope that we will be able to accommodate the complex combinations of schedules. In our various Zoom convenings, people are asking for reassurance that we have taken all the “ifs” under consideration. I am been comforted by the fact that rarely does a question come up that we have not considered.

Most years the new students come to campus with anxiety and we rally around them with aloha and a high standard of care. We challenge their assumptions about the world and challenge them academically, but we also provide a helping hand to pick them up when they stumble. This year, however, we must also look to one another because we all are entering this new academic year with a bit of apprehension. I worry because so many people have been working so hard that the usual summer respite has not really come. I encourage those who can to take a day or two off in the coming weeks to refresh, regroup, and re-energize. Many of us tend to forget our own needs while caring for everyone else. This month, self-care is just as important. Take a walk, read a book, paint, dance, pick up an instrument or a recipe, and just take a bit of time to be.

I was privileged to attend the second session of the Uluākea Virtual Symposium last weekend and learn more about the Ka‘ao Transformation Framework, developed by University of Hawai‘i Maui College and shared with UH Hilo and Hawai‘i Community College. A way of helping all students, but particularly Native Hawaiian students, transition into college life, the framework has four elements: Hua—purpose, Ha‘alele—preparation, Huaka‘i—cycle of overcoming barriers, and Ho‘i—giving back. As I contemplate what we will face this upcoming year, I find this framework helpful. Our hua of educating students is still our north star. Our Ha‘alele has been ongoing not just over the summer, but for some of us our entire careers as we have learned from past challenges and acquired many tools along the way. The Huaka‘i is ongoing.

We have many more barriers to overcome as we navigate this new environment for higher education in the era of COVID-19. This is the moment, however, where we all must step forward with Ho‘i, not only to support our students, but also to help one another. I have faith in both our will and our ability to do so.


Bonnie D. Irwin

Top photo: Office worker at UH Hilo wears mask, and shows mask made during the university’s mask-making project in April. Universal wearing of masks will be expected of everyone on campus in the fall. Courtesy photo from the Division of Student Affairs.

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