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Chancellor’s Monthly Column, Nov. 2021: Transforming students, campus, and local community through service

Bonnie Irwin
Bonnie D. Irwin

The University of Hawai‘i at Hilo has thrived by cultivating relationships with the local community. We serve our community through giving access to higher education, but also through the support we give community projects in our research, volunteerism, and service projects.

UH Hilo is a placed-based university, meaning the importance of place is foremost in our strategic planning efforts now underway. Equally important to us are the relationships we build, which are at the core of everything in education; the most effective teachers are those who can establish rapport and meaningful relationships with students.

Similarly, the most successful universities are arguably those that have made themselves a part of the community in which they are located. I am grateful for UH Hilo staff and faculty who have served our community by serving on boards, giving guest lectures, or even rolling up their sleeves and pitching in on community projects.

One project that really brings place and people together in a powerful way is the Bonner Leadership Program.

Graphic with mortarboard: The Bonner Program, Access to Education, Opportunity to Serve

Launched through the UH Hilo Center for Community Engagement in collaboration with the Campus Center, the program is funded by a Governor’s Emergency Education Relief (GEER) grant and supported by the Bonner Foundation, a national organization with a mission to transform students, communities, and campuses through service.

The program moves students beyond volunteerism and engages them in four years of 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.

Julie Mowrer
Julie Mowrer

Julie Mowrer, acting director of the Center for Community Engagement and head of the project, says local community organizations want to connect and support students, but it can take a significant amount of time to really mentor someone successfully.

This is where the support from the Bonner Foundation comes in. By building students’ skills in a Bonner cohort and creating multi-year relationships with organizations, the students have the time and support needed to contribute in meaningful ways.

We know this type of connection with others is one of the most important aspects of student success, especially during the pandemic when in-person interaction has been severely limited. The Bonner Program gives students a safe way to interact with members of our community while receiving excellent leadership training and the opportunity to use skills learned in their major.

On the community side, these student leaders can help our local organizations increase capacity and reach.

Once connected to an organization, Bonner students are encouraged to work with that organization to dig into the root causes of social or environmental issues, whether they revolve around policy, infrastructure, or other various influences. 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.

When the students finish their degrees, they will be prepared not only with skills they need to be successful, but also the values they need to make a difference.

Mahalo to all the faculty, staff, and members of the local community who are supporting our Bonner students in this important project. By working together, we can give our students this remarkable opportunity to build relationships and do good work that will benefit not only themselves, but also our local community for years to come.


Bonnie D. Irwin

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