“I just want students to be successful,” says Dean of Students Chris Holland. “I want students to know that we’re here. We’re here to serve them. We’re here to support them. We’re here to help connect them.”
Story by Kiaria Zoi Nakamura.
Christopher Holland is one of University of Hawai‘i at Hilo’s newest administrators, serving as associate vice chancellor for student affairs and dean of students. He officially took on these roles last fall, a dream nearly three decades in the making.
Holland grew up on the east coast of the continental United States and obtained his doctorate in educational administration from the University of Alabama. He first visited Hawai‘i when he was still in college, and was instantly intrigued.
“I know it just seems crazy, but I fell in love with the place right off the bat,” says Holland. “I’d been reading a lot about Hawai‘i and its history. And when I got here, it just drew me in. I couldn’t really explain it, I just sensed it, this powerful force within me that said ‘be a part of this.’”
However, reality eventually sunk in, and Holland knew that he would have to return to his life back on the continent. Between then and now, he garnered many years of educational experience working within the K-12 system, as a higher education lobbyist, and a trustee for the State University of New York (SUNY), the nation’s largest board of trustees which represents hundreds of thousands of students. He has also served as the dean of students at three other institutions.
Holland says the opportunity to expand his career to Hawai‘i came at a time when he wasn’t looking. His life-altering decision mainly came down to the values he felt the university contributed to the Hilo community: “I just think UH Hilo is an amazing place with an amazing affect to its students and staff. It really has so much potential to really transform the larger Hilo community and island.”
He continues, “This is a place that is designed and built for Native Hawaiian students, local students, and people who want to be a part of the community, that ‘ohana. And with that, comes the responsibility, that kuleana, to care about the land and the people.”
What does a dean of students do?
Holland’s journey didn’t just end with fulfilling his dream to come to Hawai‘i. In fact, this was merely the beginning. Once here, he immediately got to work trying to find ways and resources that would provide students with the greatest chance at success.
Holland says that the common perception of a dean of students is a job similar to that of a principal. He says this is actually an issue seen with a lot of authoritarian roles which he believes necessitates a reeducation.
“A lot of people associate me with this idea of, ‘when I do something wrong, that’s who I talk to.’ And that’s really just such a small part of things,” he says. The job, he says, is less punitive, and more about helping students get on a better track.
“We expect you’re going to make mistakes,” he explains. “We expect that you’re going to fall back. We’re here to help you get back up and make better choices. The dean of students’ role is really to provide support services to students and to help them understand how to navigate the landscape.”
He considers himself a “servant,” one that hopes to instill in students that the university is their community and that his purpose is to help them understand their role in and contribution to it.
So while the official duties of the dean of students do include oversight of student conduct and crises, Holland is placing equal emphasis on student advocacy and the resolution of problems.
“To me, it’s really about being a good agent of the institution, to be that advocate for students, to help them navigate, to build that kind of culture, and really do so in a welcoming and inclusive environment that nurtures and empowers them to do the things that they are capable of doing,” says Holland. “They just need that extra push to build up that capacity and competency to do those things.”
One example of how Holland has begun going about these duties is the creation of a web page designed to provide students with resources pointing them in the direction of helpful people and programs. These hyperlinks are meant to target a wide range of student-related topics such as professional development, the code of conduct, and diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives.
A philosophical approach
One of Holland’s main goals as dean of students is to develop “less restrictive and more fluid” structures. This involves the development of frameworks, which he describes as “ways for us to think about how to approach a problem, but not being so rigid that we can’t pivot as we need to.”
He goes on to say, “To me, it’s about intentionality to the work in a way that isn’t committed to doing one specific thing. It’s committed to an approach, to doing multiple things that allows for the flexibility to do so.”
Holland believes this approach is more philosophical than it is an application, but something that enables him to evolve to an issue as well as assess the effectiveness of a solution. This helps indicate what decisions should be made for the betterment of students.
“I just want students to be successful,” says Holland. “I want students to know that we’re here. We’re here to serve them. We’re here to support them. We’re here to help connect them.”
His message to students: “You’re not alone in this and we know that it’s hard to navigate higher education. Let us help you help yourself.”
While he admits that COVID-19 has definitely complicated these efforts, it has not and will not stop him from moving forward with these pursuits. More than that though, he does not want the pandemic to get in the way of students continuing their education. He reminds them, “We’ll get through this.”
Story by Kiaria Zoi Nakamura, who is earning a bachelor of arts in English with a minor in performing arts and a certificate in educational studies at UH Hilo.
Photo of Chris Holland by Kirsten Aoyagi, who is earning a bachelor of arts in communication at UH Hilo.