Student Success: Oak Foundation seeds UH Hilo mentoring program with $500K

The program will match students—from high school though college—with faculty and community organizations in order to build meaningful networks that support the students through to graduation. 

Two students at laptops, logos for UH Hilo and Oak Foundation.
(Photo of students by Hyungwon Jeon/University Relations, UH Hilo)

By Susan Enright.

A $500,000 grant awarded to University of Hawai‘i at Hilo will fund a pilot program to strengthen the pipeline to college for youth on Hawai‘i Island. The program is wide ranging and will match students—from high school though college—with faculty and community organizations in order to build meaningful networks that support a student through to graduation.

The program, seeded by Oak Foundation, a family-led philanthropic organization with an international portfolio, will be developed at the UH Hilo Center for Place-Based Socioemotional Development (The Hilo Center). The Oak Foundation, based in Geneva, Switzerland, has invested in a number of other Hawaiʻi Island community programs, including at Hawaiʻi Community College’s Pālamanui Campus.

Margary Martin
Margary Martin
Bonnie Irwin
Bonnie Irwin

“Support for this new program demonstrates Oak Foundation’s commitment to the health and wellbeing of Hawaiʻi Island youth and a continued investment in higher education,” says UH Hilo Chancellor Bonnie Irwin.

The tiered mentoring program is modeled after a number of successful student-led and partnership mentoring models. It also derives from previous research on student support conducted by Margary Martin, executive director of The Hilo Center and an associate professor at UH Hilo’s School of Education, who will lead the program.

It takes a community

Martin says the COVID-19 pandemic has isolated students from their peers and professors and notes that even though classes are starting to resume in person, many students are choosing to stay online, which may have a direct impact on their college experiences, mental health, and success.

In the two-year pilot program, students will be paired with both peers and faculty. Included are workshops and events with an annual community service project.

“That sense of belonging and relationships are two of the strongest predictors for persisting with college and graduation rates,” says Martin. “We’re trying to create this whole pipeline of students, families, and local communities to create these supportive networks.”

Chancellor Irwin believes including the local community in innovative programs such as this one is paramount to student success. “We all benefit from strengthening the university’s connection to the community and from building the pipeline to college and helping students succeed.”

One of the most important aspects of the new program is that it is led by students rather than faculty. In cultivating leadership skills, both mentors and the mentored benefit. Three student leaders have been chosen to co-construct the program and help recruit the student mentors for the paid positions.

Plans are underway for next fall’s program to have 10 faculty mentors, 10 student mentors, and 50 student mentees. Leadership development training will begin this winter.

The plan is to expand the program to high schools, where student mentors can help other students make a successful transition to college and create a strong network of support and pipeline for local students.

-See also UH System News


By Susan Enright, 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.