To combat covid fatigue, UH Hilo launches program for students to work on local social and environmental issues

The UH Hilo Center for Community Engagement is launching a student leadership program founded by the Bonner Foundation, a national organization with a mission to transform students, communities, and campuses through service.

Aerial of UH Hilo Campus with Hilo Bay in distance.
An aerial view of the UH Hilo campus shows its location in the heart of the Hilo community. The new national Bonner Program recently launched at UH Hilo will build students’ leadership skills and student-led community transformation. Photo Hollyn Johnson.

By Susan Enright.

Julie Mowrer
Julie Mowrer

The Center for Community Engagement at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo has launched a program to help students build relationships with people and organizations in the local community.

The Bonner Program, founded by the Bonner Foundation, a national organization with a mission to transform students, communities, and campuses through service, is a perfect fit for UH UH Hilo. The program moves students beyond volunteerism and engages them in four years of leadership training, basic service to a variety of community organizations, and gradually builds students’ self-awareness and skills to commit to a multi-year partnership with an organization they believe in.

Julie Mowrer, acting director of the Center for Community Engagement and principal organizer of the UH Hilo Bonner Program, says in a recent column that building relationships and making connections with others has surfaced during the pandemic as one of the most important aspects of student success. At UH Hilo, the isolation and lack of social support is seen in student cases of depression, anxiety, academic success, and difficulty in managing emotions and relationships.

“In times of crisis, one of the most powerful things we can do is to provide students and faculty with opportunities to contribute in positive ways,” writes Mowrer. “This can help relieve feelings of helplessness that often contribute to anxiety and depression.”

Mowrer considered what the center might do to help alleviate these problems. The result is the pilot Bonner Program, grounded in engaging with the local community. The grant was applied for as a joint effort between the Center for Community Engagement and the Campus Center, to bring together the programs in student leadership based at the Campus Center with the CCE’s work with the community. “We’re serving as the lead, but the Campus Center’s experience is critical in making this program a success,” clarifies Mowrer in an email.

The Bonner Program

Graphic with mortarboard: The Bonner Program, Access to Education, Opportunity to ServeMowrer found funding for the program through the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund (GEER), monies to help local communities through impacts of the covid pandemic.

“We know, from the many conversations we’ve had with community organizations, that they want to connect and support students, but it can be a significant amount of time and energy that is needed to really mentor someone successfully,” explains Mowrer. “By building students’ skills as a (Bonner) cohort and creating multi-year relationships with organizations, the students have the time and support needed to contribute in meaningful ways.”

A unique aspect of the Bonner Program is that it taps into the seven percent of Federal Work Study funds that are required to be used for community engagement, so that students can be paid for their work in the program.

Above, The Bonner Program has been a catalyst for student-led community transformation and social justice at schools throughout the national Bonner network, as described in this recruitment video for Stetson University’s Bonner Program in Florida.

Once connected to an organization, Bonner students are encouraged to work with that group to dig into the root causes of social or environmental issues, whether they revolve around policy, infrastructure, or other various influences. Bonner Leaders are challenged to do research to learn more and design capstone projects with guidance from a team of faculty, staff, and community mentors.

“Our hope is that the program will provide a network of peers, mentors from the university, the community and the wider Bonner network, offering connections and a web of support for students to lean on when challenges occur,” explains Mowrer.

Read the full column on the Higher Ed & the “Real World” blog.


Susan Enright is a public information specialist for the Office of the Chancellor and editor of UH Hilo Stories. She received her bachelor of arts in English and certificate in women’s studies from UH Hilo.