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Chancellor’s Monthly Column, May 2021: Celebrating Asian Pacific American Heritage Month

Here in Hawai‘i we owe so much to our Asian and Pacific Islander communities, and here at UH Hilo, we honor those who worked tirelessly to establish our university.

Chancellor Bonnnie Irwin
Bonnie D. Irwin

In keeping with my previous columns on Black History Month, ‘Olelo Hawai‘i Month, and Women’s History Awareness Month, this month I would like to write about May being Asian Pacific American Heritage Month.

The violent events in Atlanta on March 16 make this an even more important topic. The hateful murders that targeted hard working Chinese and Korean Americans inspires both sadness and anger, and my heart goes out to Asian and Pacific Islander communities both here in Hilo and across the state, as well as to all who empathize with victims of senseless violence.

Here in Hawai‘i we owe so much to our Asian and Pacific Islander communities, and here at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo, we honor those who worked tirelessly to establish our university and who have supported it for decades.

What began as Asian History Month is now Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, a name change to honor and celebrate the vast diversity Asian Americans and Pacific Island Americans. There are too many people and cultures within our local Asian and Pacific Islander communities to represent in a single month and certainly in a single column, so I would like to start by paying homage to some of the Asian Americans who served as head administrator at UH Hilo and who paved the way for much of who we are as an institution today.

The very first head administrator, when the campus was called the UH-Hilo Branch, was Frank T. Inouye, who served as director from 1952 to 1957. While leading the university, he oversaw the opening of the new permanent campus on Lanikaula Street with the construction of College Hall and a gymnasium. The two-year school had 155 students enrolled in arts and sciences courses in education, business administration, and engineering.

The very first chancellor at UH Hilo was Paul M. Miwa, who served from 1970 to 1975. Under his leadership, a new dormitory was built, enrollment topped 1,000, and the library tripled in size. The first four-year class graduated in 1971. There was a surge of hires, including deans, directors, and a librarian. The College of Agriculture was established.

Serving right after Chancellor Miwa was Chancellor Edwin H. Mookini, who served from 1976 to 1979. Chancellor Mookini, for whom our campus library is named, oversaw the opening of the Campus Center with a cafeteria, areas for student activities, and multipurpose rooms. UH Hilo’s enrollment increased to 1,700 students with 103 full-time faculty. The Vulcan men’s basketball team won its first National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics district title (go Vulcans!).

The first woman to hold the post of head administrator at UH Hilo was Rose Y. Tseng, who served as chancellor from 1998 to 2010. Under her leadership, enrollment increased 43 percent, and external funding increased 600 percent. New classroom, laboratory, and student life buildings, the first in 20 years, were built. Several new undergraduate, graduate and doctoral programs were established.

I hope these leaders can serve as role models for our current students, over half of whom identify as having Asian or Pacific Island heritage. These students are a big reason why year after year UH Hilo is ranked as the most ethnically diverse national university in the country (U.S. News and World Report). And while diversity as a whole goes beyond racial and ethnic identity to include gender identity, sexual orientation, one’s unique abilities and challenges, and one’s background and lived experience, our Asian and Pacific Islander students play a big role in who we are as a unique and valued institution of higher education.

So hats off to our Asian and Pacific Islander students, staff, faculty and administrators, past and present, for all their contributions to our university, our island and our state. In the spirit of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, we honor the generations of Asian and Pacific Islanders who have enriched our university’s history and are instrumental in its future success. Their contribution to the legacy of UH Hilo is a powerful antidote to hate and ignorance.


Bonnie D. Irwin

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