UH Hilo Quintessential University Citizen: Norman Arancon, internationally recognized horticulturalist and “triple threat” thespian

Associate Professor Arancon is well known on the south side of campus for his lively horticulture classes and his pioneering research in soil ecology. But on the north side of campus, around the old gym and the Performing Arts Center, he is better known for performing in campus musicals and events as a “triple threat” (accomplished singer, dancer, and actor).

By Leah Sherwood.
This post is the first in a series on Quintessential University Citizens at UH Hilo. The honorees were chosen by members of the Chancellor’s Executive Council during the first months after Chancellor Bonnie Irwin’s arrival at the university in July 2019.

Norman Arancon on stage at mic with American flag in background.
Norman Arancon, 2017 Barrio Fiesta, UH Hilo. Photo credit: Bob Douglas/UH Hilo Stories.

At the University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo, Norman Arancon wears many hats. As a horticulturalist, his research into earthworm-worked soil amendments, or vermicomposts, is internationally recognized. His teaching methods are interactive, engaging, effective, and highly valued by agricultural students. But Arancon also is well known in the university and East Hawaiʻi communities as a “triple threat” thespian: a singer, dancer, and actor of dazzling talent. And not only is he a fantastic performer, but currently, while continuing his teaching and research at the College of Agriculture, Forestry and Natural Resource Management, Arancon is simultaneously serving as chair of the university’s performing arts department.

In honor of his significant contributions to UH Hilo through these two seemingly unrelated universes of academia, Arancon was recently recognized by the UH Hilo Chancellor’s Executive Council as a “Quintessential University Citizen.”

One of Arancon’s nominators is Annette Sugimoto, the acting director of human resources. “Norman is very involved in his departments as well as the university community and cares about his students’ success,” she notes. Colleague Michael Shintaku, professor of plant pathology, who also nominated Arancon, notes, “Norman does much more than expected and is happy to do it. He’s also very organized.”

Quintessential University Citizen

Arancon is originally from the Philippines and joined UH Hilo faculty at the College of Agriculture, Forestry and Natural Resource Management in 2008. He attended Xavier University for his undergraduate degree and later went on to complete his post-graduate degree in agricultural studies in Australia at the University of Queensland. He received his master of science in environmental sciences and his doctor of philosophy in environmental sciences from Ohio State University, where he was a Fulbright Scholar from 1997 to 2000.

During his 13 years thus far at UH Hilo, the associate professor has become well known on the south side of campus for his lively horticulture classes and his pioneering research in soil ecology. His research has generated more than 20 peer-reviewed journal articles and numerous presentations at national and international conferences. His work and expertise are of great benefit to the Hawaiʻi agricultural industry and local communities.

Norman Arancon and two students examine soil sample.
Norman Arancon shows students vermicomposting food and paper wastes from campus using red wigglers and Indian blue worms. At left is Ronald Santos, and at right, Malaika Ross. Photo by Jake Rodrique.

But on the north side of campus, around the old gym and the Performing Arts Center, Arancon is better known for performing in campus musicals as a “triple threat” (singer, dancer, and actor). He also is often found sharing these talents at various campus events, from the campus holiday party, to commencement, to the annual Barrio Fiesta (which he also organizes).

About video at right: Norman Arancon does cover of Boi Dui from the musical Miss Saigon. The “triple threat” singer-dancer-actor played the role of Engineer in the UH Hilo production. Although the song is performed by another character in the production, Arancon notes on his YouTube channel, “The song constantly reverberates in my mind that I just feel like singing it and dedicate this lovingly to my fellow members of the cast and crew who left at an indelible mark in my heart.” (Lyrics.)

“UH Hilo’s performing arts department has graciously welcomed me as a cast member of many musicals and dance shows,” says Arancon. Most recently, he appeared in The Hawaiian Nutcracker, which was performed in November at the Performing Arts Center. “We handpicked him for Nutcracker because he has such a great stage presence,” says Celeste Staton, one of the production’s choreographers.

Norman Arancon in regalia, singing into hand held mic.
Norman Arancon sings at UH Hilo 2018 Spring Commencement. Photo credit: Bob Douglas/UH Hilo Stories.

In a recent profile in the Hawaii Tribune-Herald, Arancon says that music and the arts have always been part of his identity. The profile notes that he volunteers as choir director at his church, Malia Puka O Kalani Catholic Church in Keaukaha, where he also plays guitar every Saturday and Sunday during services.

Norman Arancon in traditional Filipino attire, sings on stage.
Norman Arancon performs at 2016 Barrio Fiesta, UH Hilo.

In 2019 Arancon was appointed chair of the UH Hilo performing arts department, a role he performs in addition to his duties at the agriculture college. Arancon says that being part of two very different academic departments keeps him energized.

“Every time I switch back and forth between science and art, I feel invigorated because they complement each other,” says Arancon. “Performing refreshes me and inspires me to do more science.”

Currently, Associate Professor Arancon is working with students to collect cafeteria waste from the campus dining halls to turn it into compost.

“The product of the cafeteria waste is good fertilizer for hydroponics, potted plants, and the fields,” says Arancon. “We’ve set up a cycle where the horticulture students make use of the previous semester’s compost in their gardens.”

One of his current priorities is boosting the profile of the agriculture college.

“I initiated a symposium for the College of Agriculture with a poster session and oral presentations,” he explains. “The students who participate benefit because it goes on their CV and we publish their research in our journal. It has a domino effect because people notice that things are happening at the college.”

Anarcon’s pet peeve is students staring into their laptops in the classroom.

“I tell them, ʻI don’t want you opening your computer because my lesson is not on the computer,’” says Arancon. “I’m here to tell a story. If you’re not listening to me, I get frustrated. As a performer, I feed on the energy of the crowd. I’m only as good as my audience.”

See more UH Hilo Quintessential University Citizens.

Story by Leah Sherwood, a graduate student in the tropical conservation biology and environmental science program at UH Hilo. She received her bachelor of science in biology and bachelor of arts in English from Boise State University.

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