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Chancellor’s Monthly Column, March 2022: What have we learned from the pandemic?

Bonnie Irwin
Bonnie D. Irwin

As we countdown the days until our site visit from the WASC Senior College and University Commission (WSCUC) accreditation team, they have asked the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo community to contemplate a number of things, including, “what UH Hilo has learned from its history and self-reflection (including the impact of the pandemic), the vision it has for the future.”

The history of our university is one of challenges. What other university is located in a region where we must be alert to the threat of both lava and tsunami? We are fortunate to have about half of our budget coming from the state, but at the same time, that makes us vulnerable to the ebb and flow of legislative priorities. And now, of course, the pandemic has “plagued” our campus and community in more ways than one, as we have combatted the physical and mental toll wrought by the disease.

Throughout these challenges, however, we have seen the resilience of our diverse community.

I take pride in the maturity of our students, who have tolerated the distancing and mask mandates; in the agility of our faculty, who quickly pivoted to online course delivery and then back out to in-person and hybrid courses; in the loyalty and work ethic of our staff, many of whom do not have the luxury of being able to work from home. Our entire campus community has shown ingenuity and creativity, and we have shown how much we care for one another.

We also have worked with our community and in our community, espousing those same values.

The ’Imiloa Astronomy Center became a licensed child care facility to host keiki programs. Our clinical students in nursing and pharmacy created public service announcements and helped with testing and vaccination drives. Our classes and student clubs figured out ways to serve and engage though online options.

These are tremendous lessons to learn about what we can do, and now the challenge is to carry that ingenuity and empathy forward when we are not faced with disaster.

The future that we envision, and articulate in our strategic plan, builds on our traditional strengths, such as ‘āina- and community-based learning, but also draws upon what we have learned from the pandemic.

The switch to online learning stopped most of our signature hands-on learning experiences in which our students thrive and that also help us draw students from the continent and internationally who want to take advantage our island’s amazing living learning lab.

But online learning, we discovered, is highly successful at reaching adult learners, students with families, and returning students, for whom online classes make it possible for them to finish. As we return to on-campus classes, we need to find balance between face-to-face and online learning, strategically increasing access and equity.

Another area we are looking at is the importance of giving our employees professional development opportunities, as we did at the start of the pandemic, where we re-doubled our efforts to help faculty and staff adapt to the online environment. More and better professional development has long been a need on our campus, and the pandemic made this even more clear.

Community collaborative partnerships are in our DNA and we have learned from the isolation brought on by the pandemic how important it is to celebrate our accomplishments with one another, and express gratitude both within the campus and with our community. Collaborative work is meaningful, keeps us all connected, builds networks and relationships, and embodies the concept of connecting learning, life and aloha, now more than ever.

I look forward to seeing more of you in person, having more teaching and collaborative work done in person, and then celebrating our successes together.

With aloha,

Bonnie D. Irwin

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