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Chancellor’s Monthly Column, April 2022: Imagining UH Hilo a decade from now

Bonnie Irwin pictured.
Bonnie D. Irwin

In preparation for an upcoming meeting of the University of Hawai‘i Board of Regents, UH officers were given a homework assignment. We were asked to imagine what we would see and hear on our campuses 10 years from now. We were asked to create specific snapshots and not abstract concepts. The exercise allowed me to think about what success looks like for UH Hilo.

Immediately my mind went to a campus rich in diversity, grounded in equity and hands-on learning, and interdisciplinarity in our programs. I’d like to share a few of those with you.


Our diversity is one of UH Hilo’s greatest strengths, and we have been repetitively ranked as one of the nation’s most ethnically diverse campuses for more than two decades. This diversity contributes to a great environment both in and out of the classroom for our students to learn from one another. I am proud we can provide an educational home here in Hilo, itself a diverse city, for such a wide array of students.

I see our diversity continuing on for decades to come, grounding us in our local culture but also preparing our students for the global community at large.

One future snapshot of this global perspective and exposure would be a group of racially diverse students sitting down with faculty for orientation for their upcoming study abroad experience in Japan. Groups of similar students often return to the global community after graduation to teach abroad to share their skills, mana‘o, and aloha throughout the world.

This cultural exchange happens two ways. In addition to local students going out into the world, international students come here for their academic careers.

For example, our international students from Pacific Island nations are enriched and thriving in our local culture. Another snapshot would be a group of these students on a field trip in the local community, talking with small business owners about internships and volunteer work. Many of these students return to their homelands after graduation to share their new-found skills and knowledge on resource management, climate change, business, and more.

Global interface for our students will only grow over the next decade as the world becomes more and more connected with worldwide communities moving in tandem in such diverse fields as business and environmental conservation.

Hands-on learning

International education is but one aspect of what we call “hands-on learning,” another one of our great strengths that will continue to grow. We see this across disciplines from social sciences to agriculture to health care to theater to culture revitalization.

In another future snapshot, we would see students from our Hawaiian language college and our agricultural college planting and caring for native species in gardens on campus, where all would be speaking ‘olelo Hawai‘i in explaining the project to the local Hawai‘i State Historic Preservation Division employees.

At the Hawai‘i Innovation Center in downtown Hilo, students from the College of Business and Economics, along with student computer scientists, would be helping local entrepreneurs with technology upgrades and business processes. On Maunakea, student interns from our graduate programs in heritage management and in tropical conservation biology would be leading an orientation session for visitors, highlighting the cultural and natural significance of the mauna.

Geology and data science students would continue to study Kīlauea lava flow rates alongside U.S. Geological Survey researchers. In a nursing class, students would be interning in the community to learn about local health disparities. Students and alumni would be mentoring students at the Boys & Girls Club, discussing college and career opportunities at home.


UH Hilo is growing in leaps and bounds in all these “hands-on” areas and more because it is the opposite of a traditional institution of higher education where learning happens in constricted silos. More and more, collaboration between fields is key to giving our students the scope of knowledge needed for future jobs.

We see this in data science students working with the art department to develop cutting edge graphics that aid in disseminating complex information to the public. We see our School of Education working with the anthropology department to increase Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders aiming for STEM-field careers.

In research, we see faculty at the Hawaiian language college translating old, handwritten texts on Hawaiian plant-based medicine for use by biologists and pharmacists working together to investigate traditional antibiotic compounds in indigenous plants.

These are some of the many ways in which UH Hilo is uniquely and strategically positioned to move successfully into the future. In 10 years, we will be an even stronger and more cohesively diverse university community, working collaboratively to educate our students and enrich our local community as we move together into a more complex and connected world.

With aloha,

Bonnie D. Irwin

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