UH Hilo Bonner students emerge from pandemic stronger and more skilled through working with community

Students serve in the Bonner Program for four years while being paid for over 280 hours of work per year that includes environmental projects and service in the community.

Five students gather at a porch railing at the Hakalau Forest Biological Field Station of UH Hilo (sign).
The UH Hilo 2021 Bonner Program cohort, from left, Lavinia Manufekai, Amena Tep, Devin Brown, Bella Chapman, and Evonne Fronda. The photo was taken in March 2022 during Spring Break on their three-day service trip to Hakalau Forest, where they learned about climate change in Hawai‘i and its impact on birds. They also planted 300 trees. Missing from the photo is Bonner student Carley Atkins. (Courtesy photo from the UH Hilo Center for Community Engagement)

By Maisie Paulson.

In 2021, pandemic effects seeped into everyday life, including the lasting effects it left on education. Not only were university students struggling academically, but they also struggled with their mental health due to lack of social interaction and support.

Julie Mowrer pictured
Julie Mowrer

Through a combination of state and non-profit support, Julie Mowrer, director of the Center for Community Engagement at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo, responded quickly to students’ malaise and put together a needs-based support program connecting students with mentors, peers, and members of the local community to stimulate self-esteem, academic and workforce skills, and personal growth.

“The students are engaging with a lot of different community organizations to build their network and understanding of the issues and work being done here on Hawai‘i Island,” says Mowrer.

In turn, the island community benefits greatly through the students’ hard work and dedication to the island’s social and environmental needs.

Funding for the program started from two major sources. The Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund (GEER) aimed to support programs addressing the impact of the pandemic on students, families, and educators across the state; UH Hilo’s Center for Community Engagement was honored to be one of 31 recipients in the state of Hawai‘i to be awarded this state funding, which concluded last October. This support jump started the UH Hilo Bonner Program, a nation-wide non-profit program dedicated to advancing higher education through universities engaging with their communities.

Mowrer is now building philanthropic and UH support to sustain the program. “This is still a work in progress,” she says.


“The goal of the program is to provide students with 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. The students are low-income and the first in their families to seek a university degree.

Bonner students serve in the program for four years while being paid for over 280 hours of work per year that includes environmental work and service in the community. While doing this work, the students are building relationships with community partners while gaining real-world knowledge and skills that will be of great value after they graduate to either enter the workforce or continue their education.

“There is a national focus on providing students with a more holistic educational experience, with more emphasis on ways to build students’ sense of belonging, connection with peers, developing a stronger sense of place,” says Mowrer. This includes engaging with the community and participating in learning projects.

The students are mentored by faculty for the full four years, encompassing a student’s entire academic journey at UH Hilo. “This allows us to get to know them and support them as they consider different decisions and pathways,” Mowrer emphasizes. The program also helps to provide access to different opportunities and resources that are based on needs.

Last semester, two Bonner students attended the 2022 Hawai‘i GEER Summit on O‘ahu. Devin Brown and Lavinia Manufekai shared their experiences in the Bonner program and answered questions from community members.

Devin Brown and Lavinia Manufekai at a stove cooking food.
As part of their Bonner Program community work, UH Hilo students (from left) Lavinia Manufekai and Devin Brown collaborated with Hope Services Hawai‘i to plan and cook a meal for 125 clients in shelters, April 2022. (Photo courtesy of the UH Hilo Center for Community Engagement)

Capstone projects

Each Bonner student also completes a capstone project that includes work in the community or environment as it relates to the student’s academic studies.

“The capstones really work to pull from a student’s experience in the community, their academic studies, and their passion,” says Mowrer. All the capstone projects are very different from each other because students come from different backgrounds and studies thus making for a diverse range of projects.

For example, Bonner student Amena Tep, who is earing degrees in political science and administration of justice, is working with the mayor’s office and the National Alliance on Mental Illness to better integrate mental health resources and awareness into the Bonner Program itself.

“The goal of my capstone is for people to feel comfortable discussing mental health in the first place, which is something quite difficult to do,” explains Tep. “But, I want the Bonner Program to be a safe place for its students to talk as well as hopefully expanding this ideology campus wide at some point.”

Amena Tep near a tree sapling she just planted.
Amena Tep plants trees in the Hakalau Forest as part of her Bonner Program work in March 2022. (Photo courtesy of the UH Hilo Center for Community Engagement)

Throughout the semester, students hone in on an idea for their capstone.

“For most students, their capstone project is an evolution of their experiences collaborating in our community,” says Mowrer, explaining that while working with an organization throughout the semester, students co-create a project that addresses an issue important to both the organization and the student.

“As they learn more and dig more deeply into social, environmental and other issues, the complexities and challenges become clearer.”

By Maisie Paulson (B.A. in Psychology and B.A. in Administration of Justice, 2022).

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