UH Hilo alumna selected as part of first cohort in Obama Foundation Leaders USA program

Chosen from a highly competitive pool of applicants, Whitney Aragaki, who teaches at Waiākea High School in Hilo, is one of 100 leaders chosen nationwide for the program.

Photo of Whitney Aragaki: Leaders USA 2023, Teacher Leader, Hawaii State Department of Education, Hawaii. Obama Foundation with logo.


By Susan Enright.

An alumna of the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo graduate program in tropical conservation biology and environmental science has been selected as part of the first cohort of emerging changemakers in the Obama Foundation Leaders USA program, former President Barack Obama announced July 27.

Whitney Aragaki pictured with active volcano in background.
Whitney Aragaki (Courtesy photo/LinkedIn)

Chosen from a highly competitive pool of applicants, Whitney Aragaki, who teaches at Waiākea High School in Hilo, is one of 100 leaders chosen nationwide for the program.

According to the Obama Foundation, the six-month program focuses on emerging leaders, 24–45 years old, who aim to drive systems-level change across sectors and issues, and have at least three years of demonstrated impact.

“I am excited to learn alongside leaders across the different public and private sectors across the U.S.,” says Aragaki.

Aragaki is a high school science teacher and also guides teachers in professional development in place-based education. She was the 2022 Hawaiʻi State Teacher of the Year and is passionate about sustaining the intimate interrelationships of public education, community, and the environment.

In 2013-2014, under the leadership of UH Hilo faculty, Aragaki developed and created curricula for algebra and geometry courses aligned with Common Core State Standards for implementation in Hawai‘i Department of Education middle and high schools. In 2015-2016, she worked to develop ideas for a STEM Diploma and STEM Capstone for implementation in Hawai‘i public high schools.

Aragaki is currently a UH Mānoa College of Education doctoral student in the Department of Curriculum Studies. For her doctoral program, Aragaki is developing a high school biology curriculum that is grounded in aloha ʻāina (love of the land) through the investigation of how the learning experience transforms participants’ perspectives of self and sense of belonging and responsibility in science, community, and the environment.

“I believe that our places shape our perspectives and identities, and the work that we are doing with the cohort demonstrates how impactful our places are to leadership,” says Aragaki. “The beauty of public schools—K-12 and higher education—is their proximity to the communities they serve. Having learned at UH Hilo and UH Mānoa, I am grateful for their unique place-based and community-focused ecosystems. I believe that a perspective of public service was cultivated in both learning experiences, and helps me to recommit to teaching year after year.”

Obama Foundation Leaders Program

Launched in 2018, the Obama Foundation Leaders program’s mission is to empower emerging leaders to accelerate positive and lasting change in their communities, regions, and across the globe. The first cohort of leaders is composed of values-driven changemakers from 37 states, Washington, D.C., American Samoa, Guam, and five tribal nations. In addition to Aragaki, three other professionals from the state of Hawai‘i were chosen, two with ties to UH. (See story at UH System News.)

Obama Foundation logo“I’m inspired by this talented group of young leaders from across the United States who are working on the most pressing issues facing our world,” says President Obama. “These leaders give me hope, and they deserve our support.”

The program offers participants a values-driven leadership curriculum, action labs focused on strengthening democratic institutions and culture in the U.S., community groups for fostering constructive dialogue in a polarized environment, and one-on-one support to help tackle pressing issues. Participants will have the opportunity to engage with President Obama, leadership coaches, subject matter experts, and each other to deepen their leadership practice.

Upon completion of the six-month program, the 100 changemakers in the inaugural cohort will join the Obama Foundation Leadership Network, a community of global program alumni.

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Story 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.

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