Chancellor Bonnie D. Irwin is featured in Midweek Hawai‘i Island this week.
When University of Hawai‘i at Hilo students returned to campus last week, there was a new face waiting to greet them. Bonnie Irwin, who began her tenure as the university’s chancellor on July 1, has big plans for the small-town university.
“I have spent most of my life in smaller communities,” says Irwin, who previously was provost and vice president for academic affairs at California State University, Monterey Bay.
“While I have a lot to learn about the diverse cultures that make up Hilo and Hawai‘i Island, I know a lot about small towns and small campuses. Relationships matter. I am committed to transparency in the way we operate, consultation with faculty and staff about how we do what we do, and empowering others to grow and become leaders themselves.”
Regional universities in small communities have a greater impact on the local area than the bigger research universities, says Irwin, who has more than 30 years of experience in higher education, including positions at University of California, Berkeley, and Eastern Illinois University. Irwin continues to seek out opportunities in places where she feels she can make the greatest difference.
The opening week of the fall semester is here! It’s second only to commencement week in its level of activity, enthusiasm, and hope for the future. Students are arriving to the campus of the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo from across the state, nation, and the world as well as from down the street. UH Hilo rightly prides itself on the wide diversity of ethnic and cultural origins of our students. Indeed, The Chronicle of Higher Educationranked us last year as the most diverse public four-year university in the country.
Yet there is still one over-arching thing all these students have in common: the desire to better themselves and to provide a bright future for themselves and their families. And that is the magic of higher education when we are successful at it; we open the door to opportunity for individuals, families, and communities.
The UH Hilo Student Success Leadership Team has been hard at work both on recruiting students and keeping them here. We have bold goals for student success, and I am pleased to see so many good initiatives underway. We are continuing to work on pathways for students from UH community colleges into UH Hilo baccalaureate programs. We are creating more organized and intentional opportunities for community service and community-based research projects for our students. We are trying to expand employment opportunities for students on campus, so they can hone their job skills and build their resumés while helping their peers succeed.
Our new students were so excited to participate in First-Year Experience activities during Orientation last month. The campus community welcomed our newest Vulcans warmly with four days of activities—workshops, fairs, tours, shuttles, various socials, and a beautiful convocation ceremony—introducing them to our university and our community. The enthusiasm was palpable and I was honored to participate. Students are excited to be in college, excited to be at UH Hilo, and of course, a bit anxious about life at the university and how it might differ from the high school or community college they have come from.
We are also focusing on activities for continuing students: research experiences, internships, community service, study abroad. All of these provide valuable opportunities for students to apply what they are learning in class to real world situations. One of my goals for UH Hilo is to provide more of these opportunities for more students, so that they are competitive for good jobs and good graduate schools. At UH Hilo, they get the one-on-one attention that really enhances their learning, something larger schools cannot compete with.
Woven into all of this activity is a feeling of ‘ohana; our campus is relationship driven. We create lasting bonds and friendships among our students and between our students and members of the entire campus community, including faculty and staff, relationships that take them forward into life with the full support they need to succeed.
Thank you all for your support of our students! I am looking forward to the coming year.
Bonnie D. Irwin
Photo: New Vulcans on the Campus Center Plaza for the start of UH Hilo Student Orientation activities on Wednesday, Aug. 21. Nyssa Kushi, University Relations.
Bonnie Irwin’s first priority is the UH Hilo students. While improving graduation rates is one measure, she wants to create successful, productive members of the community.
Bonnie D. Irwin took the reigns of the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo as chancellor on July 1, 2019, amid a traditional Hawaiian appointment ceremony that included the blowing of pū (shell), hula and an offering of special water.
“I find that spirit in Hawai‘i to be so powerful—the idea of ‘ohana, of community and that everyone is interconnected,“ Irwin says. ”It’s a great way to help students so they feel that they are nurtured. They are part of something bigger than themselves, as we all are.”
“The dedication to this place that we have all chosen to be our home is the strength of this community and, I believe, the way forward for the future of Hilo and Hawai‘i,” Irwin writes in a recent column. “I am looking forward to creating opportunities for the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo to partner with businesses, schools and community groups across the island to further improve our home and, above all, to provide the best experience for our students that we can.”
UH Hilo worked on a new strategic plan last year. Irwin says this year the university will implement that plan, asking, “How can we focus the immense goodwill and skills and ability of this campus and its community to move the institution forward?”
Her first priority is the UH Hilo students. While improving graduation rates is one measure, she wants to create successful, productive members of the community.
“We have a lot of people that I think the university could help to a greater extent than it is now, and part of being a regional comprehensive university is helping the region move forward as well,” she says.
Irwin has more than 30 years of experience in higher education, and last served as provost and vice president for academic affairs at California State University Monterey Bay (CSUMB). She sees similarities with her former students. About 40 percent of CSUMB’s students were Latino, most of whom were bilingual. At UH Hilo, there are bilingual students who speak Hawaiian at home, which she sees as an asset.
Student success leads to family success and helps the whole community to move forward. “I see [education] as a sacred mission,” Irwin says. “I love working in higher education because we get to transform students’ lives.”
It is my honor to be able to welcome you to the fall 2019 semester as your new chancellor! I have had a busy few weeks meeting staff and community members and learning as much about UH Hilo as quickly as I can, but I am not done yet. I will be conducting a listening tour over the course of the next several months to hear about your hopes and dreams for our campus and students, so that we can chart a course together.
The opening days of the fall term are my second favorite season of the academic year. (Commencement, of course, is my favorite!) Today we welcome new students to campus. The hard work of our admissions staff and others has paid off in that our entering class is larger than last year’s. Now it is up to all of us to engage these students, keep them excited about their courses and degree programs, and help them succeed. I know they are in good hands.
In my previous messages this summer and in the communications you have received from the vice chancellors, you have heard about some of the challenges that the current term may bring to us and our students. Faculty, do not hesitate to reach out to the deans for assistance in supporting our students through the challenges that they may face articulating their complex emotions and thoughts about Maunakea or any other controversial topic that may come their way. We are fortunate indeed to be working in higher education in this moment in the history of our island, our state, and our nation. At times when emotions run high and people become entrenched in positions, as educators we bring skills of listening, learning, and civil discourse to our work and our relationships with one another.
I look forward to meeting more of you in the coming weeks. Thank you for everything you do for our students and for UH Hilo.
Photo of University Classroom Building by Raiatea Arcuri.