Sustainability practices at UH Hilo and Hawai‘i Community College highlighted on Earth Day panel

UH Hilo Chancellor Irwin, Hawai‘i Community College Chancellor Solemssas, and Pālamanui Kumu Lyons discussed sustainability practices on their campuses at a symposium held virtually on Earth Day.

By Kiaria Zoi Nakamura.

Above, Chancellor Bonnie Irwin delivers remarks at the Lā Honua Symposium held virtually on Earth Day, April 22, 2021.

Bonnie D. Irwin
Bonnie D. Irwin

The chancellors of the two University of Hawai‘i campuses on Hawaii Island say respect for Hawaiian culture and protecting the ‘āina for future generations are the two most important considerations when addressing sustainability practices on their respective campuses.

UH Hilo Chancellor Bonnie Irwin and Hawai‘i Community College Chancellor Rachel Solemssas, along with Kumu Ka‘ea Lyons from Hawai‘i CC’s Pālamanui campus on the Kona side of the island, sat together on a  panel during the Lā Honua Symposium held virtually on Earth Day, April 22, to discuss highlights on campus sustainability.

UH Hilo

Chancellor Irwin focused her remarks on environmental sustainability specifically at UH Hilo. Her opening remarks reflected on how UH Hilo works to promote and protect Native Hawaiian people, values, and land. Continually inspired by the university’s mission, “one learns from many sources,” Irwin notes that “the ‘āina has much to teach us, and if we want future generations to also learn from their environment, we need to do what we can to protect it.”

Irwin credits much of UH Hilo’s sustainability progress to a campus sustainability committee made up of students, faculty and staff, but also expressed appreciation for the support received from the UH System Sustainability Office and VISTA volunteer.

Other actions the university has taken to better the environment includes the installation of LED light fixtures, additional E-vehicle charging stations, and inverter-style AC systems. “All of these efforts help us to reduce our carbon footprint. On the horizon will be the installation of more photovoltaic panels on campus.”

Adjacent to sustainability efforts has also been the university’s commitment to public health as a Blue Zones Project approved worksite. Campus dining services offer local-first entrees at least once a week with intentions of increasing this option in the fall. The campus’ composting program further reinforces the university’s commitment to sustainable eating options.

The university also is exercising sustainable practices in curriculum and research. UH Hilo’s catalog boasts 27 courses that are designated as sustainability classes and the faculty are currently working toward creating a sustainability certificate like that of Hawai‘i CC.

“This will be an asset for students wishing to pursue a career in sustainability and will be an important milestone in our journey to gain recognition for our sustainability efforts through the Sustainability Tracking Assessment and Rating Systems or STARS.”

The chancellor talked about a more hands-on example of sustainability education with the creation of the Ululaumāhie Native Forest Restoration Project.  “It’s primary objective is education through the perpetuation of traditional Hawaiian knowledge with an emphasis on cultural benefits and strategies for forging stronger partnerships.”

Irwin believes this will lead to increased public perception of the value and benefits of urban trees through culture-grounded mālama-’āina-based conservation education. “This project also dovetails with and fulfills UH Hilo’s campus-wide plan to further indigenize the university’s learning environment.”

Hawai‘i Community College

Rachel Solemssas
Rachel Solemssas

In her remarks, Chancellor Solemssas acknowledged “Hawai‘i as an indigenous space” and a commitment to providing equity for the Kānaka Maoli community. She says her respect for Hawaiian culture is an important first step in creating ways to better protect sacred lands.

She went on to share the exciting news that Hawai‘i CC’s fall catalog will include a newly created Certificate in Sustainability program. She also shared some of the amazing student restoration projects. “And now in 2021, we are so happy to celebrate again and to carry on to Lā Honua Symposium its multicultural, multidisciplinary environmental kinship.”


Kumu Lyons talked about the Pālamanui campus earning a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Platinum rating from the U.S. Green Building Council, the highest rating possible in the sustainable building program. “Projects pursuing LEED certification earn points across several categories including energy use and air quality.” Based on the number of points achieved, a project then earns one of four LEED rating levels with platinum at the top.

Sustainability efforts that contributed to this rating include archaeological preservation, forest restoration, the encouragement of alternate transportation, an onsite water waste treatment system for water conservation, and energy conservation by use of solar panels.


The collaborative presentation between Irwin, Solemssas and Lyons closed with Irwin excited about future partnership prospects. Her parting words were, “We still have a long way to go, but with the energy and enthusiasm around sustainability that I have witnessed on campus, I am optimistic about the future of this work.”


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.