Skip to content →

Chancellor’s Monthly Column, Jan. 2022: Partnerships strengthen learning opportunities

Bonnie Irwin
Bonnie D. Irwin

At the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo, we have rightly celebrated our number one ranking for diversity among national universities from U.S. News & World Report. And though we are not in the business of chasing rankings, we do look forward to learning about this particular benchmark every year.

There is another ranking, however, that we have not touted this year that is also of note: among nearly 400 “national universities,” UH Hilo ranks 30th in social mobility. The way U.S. News & World Report measures this is by looking at how successful universities are “at advancing social mobility by enrolling and graduating large proportions of disadvantaged students awarded with Pell Grants. The vast majority of these federal grants are awarded to students whose adjusted gross family incomes are under $50,000.”

To be in the top eight percent of national universities in providing opportunity is truly something for us to be proud of, and it demonstrates the mission of UH Hilo to serve historically underserved students, both in terms of race and ethnicity and income.

A university education opens doors to opportunity and greater prosperity, and the way that UH Hilo often does this is through partnerships with government groups and private businesses in our island community, demonstrating that when we work together, students thrive and graduates succeed.

One of the most important areas where we do this kind of collaborative work is in experiential learning, meaning hands-on activities that are often delivered through internships conducted off campus in our island environment and communities. This means that hands-on learning is embedded not only in our campus labs and studios, but also on our farm laboratory in Pana‘ewa and in our communities throughout the island, where our students learn how to apply the theory and skills they acquire in class.

Through internships and clinical experiences students get to test-drive their chosen careers. At the same time, the community benefits by having fresh ideas and enthusiasm in their workplaces.

Experiential learning benefits island communities

A great example of this kind of learning experience is the research done by UH Hilo geography professor Ryan Perroy, which was showcased recently at the United Nations’ global Climate Change Conference (COP26). This project has generated a comprehensive inventory for Hawaiʻi Island’s 428 kilometers of coastline.

Described at COP26 as a model approach to climate change adaptation challenges, Prof. Perroy’s research is being conducted as a local, community-based solution through a collaboration between UH Hilo and the County of Hawai‘i.

The research team includes UH Hilo students Aloha Kapono, Erica Ta, and Hannah Hartmann. Geospatial research analysts Nai‘a Odachi and Eszter Collier, a 2019 graduate of the UH Hilo master’s program in tropical conservation biology and environmental science, are also part of the team.

The investigation is based on previous work done by Rose Hart, also a graduate of the master’s program who became an expert in using unmanned aerial systems to map shorelines when she was a graduate student. Rose won an award in 2017 for that collaborative work on estimating coastal erosion rates for three stretches of Hawaiʻi Island coastline and comparing them to projected sea-level rise rates.

This kind of investigation into coastal erosion will deliver science-based coastal change estimates that will inform the County of Hawai‘i as they look to update coastal setback policies to be more place-based and adaptive through future climate change impacts. All coastline communities will benefit from this research, and because our students are immersed in this work as part of their studies, they graduate fully prepared to help conduct the necessary science needed to understand future impacts of climate change.

When I am out and about in the community, I am often asked what folks can do to help our students, and internships always top that list.

Of the many high-impact practices identified by the Association of American Colleges and Universities, internships often top the list for the most valuable to students. Not only do they help solidify knowledge through the application of theory and skill in real-world settings, they teach responsibility and help students form professional networks, both locally and nationally and internationally.

Strengthening and supporting internships as well as building out infrastructure to support these experiences is a significant item on our strategic plan, and we look forward to continued growth in this area, and even more opportunity for our students to thrive and make the best use of their education in intern experiences and careers.

Wishing you all a very Happy New Year! Stay safe and be well.

With aloha,

Bonnie D. Irwin

Published in All Posts Remarks, Messages, & Writings