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Category: Remarks, Messages, & Writings

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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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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Chancellor’s Remarks at 2022 Spring Welcome Event

The action plan has launched, and staff and faculty across the campus have volunteered to sponsor or collaborate on the action items, each of which will help us forward our goals of equity, ‘āina- and community-based education, and a healthy and vibrant campus ‘ohana.Screenshot of banner: Connecting Learning, Life and Aloha.

Following the introductions of seven new admin, faculty and staff, Chancellor Bonnie Irwin delivered these remarks with slides at the 2022 Spring Welcome held in person on Feb. 9 at the Performing Arts Center, University of Hawai‘i at Hilo. View entire event on YouTube.

I’d like to share with you a few thoughts about the university and spring semester.

While the number of people we welcome aboard in spring is relatively small, each has an integral role to play in our success. I am so happy to be celebrating the addition of these wonderful people to our UH Hilo ‘ohana, and we anticipate even more new employees joining our ranks in the fall. We have many searches ongoing for staff, faculty, and administrators.

You and the new colleagues who will start in the fall join our community at a pivotal moment: as we emerge from the pandemic (we hope!) we implement a new strategic plan.

The action plan has launched, and staff and faculty across the campus have volunteered to sponsor or collaborate on the action items, each of which will help us forward our goals of equity, ‘āina- and community-based education, and a healthy and vibrant campus ‘ohana. The goals and the actions to implement them will be featured when the WSCUC visiting team comes to our campus in April.

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Chancellor’s Monthly Column, Feb. 2022: Legislative priorities and the post-pandemic UH Hilo

Bonnie Irwin
Bonnie D. Irwin

After some adjustments at the beginning of this semester—notably moving some classes online temporarily due to the omicron surge—all classes at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo are now returned to their originally scheduled course delivery mode (in-person or hybrid). It has been a successful transition and an important part of moving into post-pandemic life at UH Hilo.

With thoughts of moving forward into a bright and optimistic future, I would like to share with you our priorities for the upcoming legislative session.


In the big picture, restoring UH Hilo’s budget is a high priority. We have managed resources very carefully during the pandemic and we are grateful for the federal relief funds that have helped to see us through. But we cannot survive if we continue this austerity program. We are hiring this year—faculty, staff, administrators—and look forward to investing time and reserve funds into implementing our strategic plan.


On the hiring front, the governor has recognized the importance of UH’s post-pandemic plan and has added faculty lines to his proposed budget. For Hilo, that means new positions in computer science, and nursing. It’s of the utmost importance that we strengthen these two programs due to state need for these professionals.

Computer science

In computer science, job opportunity continues to outpace the number of graduates. I’m pleased to report that enrollment is up in UH Hilo computer science this year. The program has fully embraced hybrid-flexible or HyFlex learning, meaning that for each class, students have a choice between learning in-person, synchronously online, or asynchronously online. The computer science department is doing this type of teaching quite well as they adapt and grow during these stressful pandemic times.


Now more than ever, we also need more qualified health care professionals in the workforce. UH Hilo nursing enrollments continue to be strong. Our nursing graduates are on the front lines across our island communities, and even as undergraduates, our nursing students are making a big difference completing projects with local healthcare organizations. To strengthen and grow the program, we have opportunities to partner with other UH campuses to meet the demand.

Aeronautical science

Aeronautical science is another field where the governor supports our planning ahead to meet future job demand. A wave of retirements in the aviation industry, sparked by the slowdown during the pandemic, means that there is an upcoming employment gap. Since opening the aeronautical program two years ago, we have seen a lot of interest in the curriculum’s interdisciplinary components of data science; geography; various science, technology, engineering and math programs (STEM fields); and computer science through available electives. Our first class is getting ready to set off for flight school.


For our athletics program, we have a $400,000 supplemental budget for athletics. We had temporary funding that we are seeking to make permanent. Like the campus in general, athletics has been able to cut back during the pandemic when travel was restricted. But we have a good staff of coaches and very promising teams, so we are looking forward to full seasons of competitions with the fans back on the sidelines to watch these student athletes compete.


UH Hilo is happy to have PISCES back. The Pacific International Space Center for Exploration Systems is a state agency once with UH Hilo but then moved to the Hawai‘i Department of Business, Economic Development, and Tourism. Due to an oversight in the budgeting last year, we received PISCES but not its funding. The current budget seeks to rectify this. The center promotes the aerospace industry in our state, supporting economic development through technologies related to research in planetary exploration. We look forward to working with them on research and economic development projects for our island and state.

Staying on track

Despite all the challenges brought by the pandemic, UH Hilo continues our mission to improve the wellbeing and status of the citizens on Hawai‘i Island and across the state. With support of the State Legislature, we can stay on track with faculty and programs that will benefit everyone in a post-pandemic world.

Thank you for all your support.

With aloha,

Bonnie D. Irwin

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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

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