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Chancellor’s Monthly Column, Feb. 2023: Every person on campus plays a role in the success of our students

Bonnie Irwin pictured.
Bonnie D. Irwin

On February 10, the University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo held a student success summit entitled, “Their Journey is Our Success.” Attended by over 50 people, the vast majority in person, we explored how we define student success on our campus; what the journey of a typical student looks like and potential barriers they might face along the way, and we dove into some of the data that we have about student grades, persistence, completion. The participants had opportunity to discuss issues in small groups, and we vowed to do more such sessions in the future.

Even on a campus as small as UH Hilo, faculty and staff can become siloed in their various units, but we know that students do not perceive those divisions. One of the great takeaways from the event was that we need to bring people together across departments much more often, and doing so in person seems to be a better way to cross those boundaries than the ubiquitous Zoom meetings.

The working definition of student success at UH Hilo that is posted on our website begins like this: “Successful UH Hilo students earn their intended degrees from our campus or elsewhere within 150% of normal time and find employment or continue their students within one year of graduation.” Within 150% means that students graduate within six years, which is one of the standards that we are held to.

Of course, some students take longer and many take a shorter time to finish degrees. But research shows that for many students, the longer the degree takes, the less likely they are to finish, so we urge them to take 15 credits per semester if they can. The average “unit load” at UH Hilo is just over 14, so weʻre in good shape there.

One might think it odd that our definition of student success allows for students to graduate elsewhere, but we find that many students who start at UH Hilo discover that their goals change, and they might decide that what they need lies elsewhere. Engineering is an example of that. Because UH Hilo does not currently have an engineering degree, we find that students who wish to become engineers transfer to UH Mānoa or to a university on the continent. If we have prepared them well for that journey, that is a win for us and the student.

Other students may find that once they start a four-year degree, their heartʻs desire is actually a career that might be better served by one of the UH community colleges. That is okay, too, and we might very well get that student back later in life when their goals change again. Of course, our preference is that the students we recruit are the ones who wish to be here for the programs we offer at both the undergraduate and graduate level.

At our event, we discussed how every person on campus plays a role in the success of our students. Students learn better in comfortable spaces that are designed for learning. We use the RIM (renovate, improve, modernize) money we get from the state to update our facilities, make sure the classrooms are climate controlled, and create spaces that students want to be in. Thus our facilities, budget, and building and grounds staff play an important role in student success, even if they rarely interact directly with students.

Because students do not necessarily understand the silos we create, it is important that we put students first in all our interactions with them. Many of us remember being shuffled from office to office when we were students, and our aim at UH Hilo is to not perpetuate that tradition. The rule in my office is that if we are not the office that can address a studentʻs problem, we will be their next-to-last stop. We will figure out where they need to go, and call over to that other office and let them know that we are sending a student their way.

Of course, teaching and learning is at the center of what we do, and our faculty do it well, but the rest of us also have a key role to play in our studentsʻ journeys.

With aloha,

Bonnie D. Irwin
Chancellor, UH Hilo

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