Remarks by Bonnie D. Irwin Chancellor, University of Hawai‘i at Hilo Education Sector Keynote Hawai‘i County Sustainability Summit March 5, 2021
Aloha kakahiaka and welcome to UH Hilo in this virtual space.
Earlier this week, I was at a board meeting for a non-profit in the state and we were engaged in a strategic planning exercise that asked us to envision Hawai‘i in 2030. The group was divided between the optimists and the pessimists. Will we be a better, stronger more thriving community or will we see an increase in the various social and economic issues that divide us? And then last night I attended one of our business classes and heard the energy and optimism of students, who were brainstorming alternate use for the UH Hilo Innovation Center downtown. There was so much hope in those discussions! I am in the education business, so I am among the optimists. If we are to thrive as a community, educating and nurturing our youth is the future. Can we overcome differences, heal past and present grievances and work together to build the future those our youth deserve? I believe we can, as I heard many calls to rewrite the narrative, and your very attendance at this event means you share that optimism.
Next month, it will have been 51 years since the first Earth Day was celebrated. Those of us who remember those times, remember the activism around several other issues: civil rights, women’s rights, anti-war. The late sixties and early seventies forever changed the United States. In the wake of that first Earth Day, more schools started teaching students more about ecology, the way in which each species on Earth is interdependent on an entire ecosystem and the way in which human activity can help or harm these ecosystems. Generations of school children became environmentally aware, nagging parents about the need to recycle, compost, buy high mileage vehicles, and myriad other actions that we somewhat take for granted now. The point being that education, what children learn, often drives all of our behavior. As schools began to teach more about ecology in the 70s, students came to colleges and universities with dreams to pursue careers that would help them protect the environment, dreams that we are still working to fulfill. I would not be in the career I am in if I did not believe that education plays a key role in just about everything we do. As I looked over the many types of sustainability listed in the summit program for these two days, I found that every item had some connection to the University of Hawai‘i, many of the items having a connection specifically to the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo or Hawai‘i Community College.
Women’s History Month: Celebrating three strong Native Hawaiian women who have a place of honor in the history of the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo.
As we enter Women’s History Month, I would like to acknowledge three strong women who have a place of honor in the history of the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo with their enduring faith in the Hawaiian people and furtherance of Hawaiian language and culture. These women, each well educated with a passion to educate generations to come with a grounding in the language and culture of this place, show the way forward for the university.
Ruth Ke‘elikōlani Keanolani Kanāhoahoa
On February 9, I was honored to attend the commemoration of the birthday of Ruth Ke‘elikōlani Keanolani Kanāhoahoa (February 9, 1826 – May 24, 1883), for whom our Ka Haka ‘Ula O Ke‘elikōlani, College of Hawaiian Language, is named. As I listened to the various mele and stories, I was struck by her strength and resilience and her deep caring for her people. Over the course of her life, she suffered tremendous loss and persevered through numerous challenges, making her a strong role model for our students, who often confront difficulties on the way to their degrees.
Ke‘elikōlani was a member of the Kamehameha family, the founding dynasty of the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi, and served as Royal Governor of the Island of Hawaiʻi. As primary heir to the Kamehameha family, she became a landholder of what would become the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Estate.
Most notably, Ke‘elikōlani was a staunch defender of ancient Hawaiian traditions and customs. While she understood English and spoke it well, she used the Hawaiian language exclusively, requiring English-speakers to use a translator. She preferred to live as a noble woman of antiquity. While her royal estates were filled with elegant palaces and mansions built for her family, she chose to live in a large traditional stone-raised grass house she referred to as Haleʻōlelo. Ka Haka ʻUla O Keʻelikolani, College of Hawaiian Language, is named in her honor and the college’s building, Haleʻōlelo, is named in honor of her traditional home.
We also benefit from the role model Queen Lili‘uokalani, the last sovereign monarch of the Hawaiian Kingdom. An inspiring and caring leader, her empathy for and assistance to the victims of the smallpox epidemic of 1881 and those suffering from Hansen’s disease, including her advocacy for a hospital at Kaka‘ako, provide meaningful examples for us during the current pandemic.
Lydia Liliʻu Loloku Walania Kamakaʻeha was named Liliʻuokalani, heir to the Hawaiian Kingdom, by her brother King David Kalākaua. She was the only queen regnant and the last sovereign monarch of the Hawaiian Kingdom, ruling from January 29, 1891, until the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom to the United States on January 17, 1893. The Queen was beloved by the people and during the overthrow they were ready to go to battle for her, but because U.S. military ships were ready to engage at a moment’s notice, she yielded her authority so the population would not be wiped out.
While most people are more familiar with the Queen’s trust, it was her foresight and strength to prevent bloodshed (and her knowledge of United States and international law) that the islands’ population of Native Hawaiians is at its strength today. And it is upon this foundation—the people—that the revitalization of Hawaiian language and culture is built.
Another strong woman with whom UH Hilo has affiliation is Edith Kanaka‘ole, in honor of whom one of our buildings on campus is named. Kumu hula, former faculty member, musician, she laid a foundation for much of our Hawaiian oriented curriculum. Ms. Kanakaʻole was an instructor at Hawai‘i Community College (1971–79) and UH Hilo (1973–79), where she pioneered courses and seminars in ethnobotany, chant, mythology, genealogy, land ownership, ‘ohana, Polynesian history, and the Hawaiian oral arts. She trained in oli chanting and choreographed hulas for many of her chants. She was the president of a local Hilo Hawaiian language organization, Hui Hoʻoulu ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi, and founder of Hālau Hula O Kekuhi.
On campus, the Edith Kanakaʻole Hall was named in her honor. It is through Ms. Kanakaʻole’s support that our UH Hilo Bachelor of Arts in Hawaiian Studies was developed to be taught through Hawaiian language, integrating Hawaiian language and Hawaiian studies into one major that has since grown from a degree program, to a department, and currently Ka Haka ʻUla O Keʻelikolani, College of Hawaiian Language.
More role models
In addition to these three historic women, there are, of course, many female role models on our campus and in our community, remarkable people who have demonstrated resilience, grace under pressure, care for our community, expertise and accomplishment in their fields. Research shows that college students of all genders need role models and they will do even better if those role models are people to whom they can relate.
One of the most important groups of role models for our students is our alumni. Students see the successes of those who come before them and are inspired to stay the course and finish their degrees. Last month was the launch of our new alumni newsletter, Pilina, which celebrates our alumni and shares their stories. I’m excited to see future stories of success as our current students follow in the path of their many role models who have lifted up our community.
I am excited to share with you this inaugural University of Hawai‘i at Hilo alumni newsletter, which will allow us to stay in touch, even during these times when we must remain physically distant. I hope you are all staying well and that your families are healthy in these challenging times. You can expect this newsletter twice a year, and we will do our best to let you know of things happening on campus as well as stories about your fellow alumni. If you have something you wish to share, please feel free to get in touch! When it is safe to do so, we will start hosting events again, and we will make sure you hear about opportunities to participate.
Life on campus these days is a little quieter and a little slower, but we still have over 200 students living on campus, and we are holding face-to-face classes for labs and clinical experiences that cannot be duplicated online. Our campus staff, faculty, and students have been vigilant about health and safety protocols, which has allowed us to keep our community relatively safe. When I hear from colleagues about very different circumstances on the continent, I am so grateful that our campus maintains a strong sense of aloha and mālama for one another. This has allowed for some in-person classes to continue and for a limited athletic competition schedule.
More challenging than the pandemic itself has been the subsequent budget restriction that we are preparing for. In July, I convened a budget committee that has been working hard to determine how we will continue to support our students in the best way possible while preserving those aspects of a UH Hilo education that are our hallmarks: ‘āina-based education centered around Hawaiian values and deep concern for our community, and out-of-class applied learning experiences, such as research, community service, and study abroad. Our faculty are in discussions about how to make our programs even more relevant and resonant for our current and future students.
As you know, UH Hilo has a resilient ‘ohana, filled with creative and talented people who care about our students and our community. I am proud of how we have come through the pandemic and I am optimistic about our future. In our next newsletter, we will have an update about strategic planning and the announcement of an alumni advisory board I will be creating to help us continue to thrive.
Mahalo nui loa for all your support,
Chancellor Bonnie D. Irwin
Honored to attend a celebration of the birth of Princess Ke’elikolani, for whom our College of Hawaiian Language is named. She was a strong and resilient woman who was fiercely supportive of her people in many ways. An inspiration.
-Photo by Chancellor Bonnie D. Irwin on Twitter today.
The new strategic plan for UH Hilo will include objectives for strengthening equity, making sure that every student has access to the rich array of opportunities that having a university on this island can provide.
There is no doubt that budget and health matters are taking up a lot of time these days as we prepare for the coming months and years at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo, but people across campus are also working on other things that are important to our institution and community.
The new strategic plan for UH Hilo will include objectives for strengthening equity, making sure that every student has access to the rich array of opportunities that having a university on this island can provide. Many students on our island believe that college or university is not an attainable goal for them; we can certainly do a better job at directing these students toward financial and academic resources. Too often at universities, we wait for students to come to us, to ask the right questions, and to figure out the means to attend. When college-going is new to one’s family, however, the whole process seems mysterious and difficult.
An example of a bright spot on the horizon for these first generation and other hesitant students is that this academic year, the UH System inaugurated the Fast Pass Initiative, where eligible high school seniors received a conditional letter of acceptance from UH Hilo. If they take advantage of this offer, their admission will be expedited without having to go through the entire application process. We hope this will help students from our local communities and across the state to matriculate at UH Hilo where their academic, personal, and professional journey will be our focus.
Because we know some of our policies and processes might be challenging for students to navigate, we will be working with the Lumina Foundation this spring to do an audit of some of these processes with equity in mind. Are we inadvertently discouraging some students from staying on course? Do we make the process of transfer from a UH community college smooth so that students do not lose time in earning a degree? We will learn how we can do better to serve those students who may not have all the advantages coming in the door.
We enter Black History Month with a re-launch of our campus diversity committee, newly named the Committee for Excellence in Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. I am excited to see what kinds of projects and initiatives can come out of this new group and how we may use their expertise to be a better UH Hilo.
A timely development to celebrate during ‘Ōlelo Hawaiʻi Month is the receipt of an exciting grant awarded to Ka Haka ‘Ula O Ke‘elikōlani College of Hawaiian Language. The college has received a four-year early literacy grant from Hawai‘i P-20 Partnerships for Education based out of UH Mānoa. The grant will create a comprehensive evidence-based early literacy program for children, birth through kindergarten, for a majority of Hawaiian language medium early learners statewide. These literacy efforts should also help more students see college, especially UH, as an attainable goal.
Opportunities like this make me optimistic for our future. Like many others, I was in awe listening to the young poet Amanda Gorman at the presidential inauguration. I was particularly moved by the last few lines:
The new dawn blooms as we free it For there is always light, if only we’re brave enough to see it If only we’re brave enough to be it
As we emerge from Covid times I am filled with hope. Every time I look out and see the sun rise over the ocean here from East Hawai‘i, I think of new beginnings, new opportunities, new hope, and our duty to ensure that each of our students shares those feelings.