There is no doubt that budget and health matters are taking up a lot of time these days as we prepare for the coming months and years at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo, but people across campus are also working on other things that are important to our institution and community.

UH Hilo was once again named by US News & World Report as the most diverse national university in the country. We are rightly proud of that designation and happy that we live in such a richly diverse community, but as we enter Black History Month and ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi Month, we also recognize the need for our university to extend our focus on diversity to include the even more important issues of equity inclusion, and justice. I’d like to share with you some of the ways we are doing that.

The new strategic plan for UH Hilo will include objectives for strengthening equity, making sure that every student has access to the rich array of opportunities that having a university on this island can provide. Many students on our island believe that college or university is not an attainable goal for them; we can certainly do a better job at directing these students toward financial and academic resources. Too often at universities, we wait for students to come to us, to ask the right questions, and to figure out the means to attend. When college-going is new to one’s family, however, the whole process seems mysterious and difficult.

An example of a bright spot on the horizon for these first generation and other hesitant students is that this academic year, the UH System inaugurated the Fast Pass Initiative, where eligible high school seniors received a conditional letter of acceptance from UH Hilo. If they take advantage of this offer, their admission will be expedited without having to go through the entire application process. We hope this will help students from our local communities and across the state to matriculate at UH Hilo where their academic, personal, and professional journey will be our focus.

Because we know some of our policies and processes might be challenging for students to navigate, we will be working with the Lumina Foundation this spring to do an audit of some of these processes with equity in mind. Are we inadvertently discouraging some students from staying on course? Do we make the process of transfer from a UH community college smooth so that students do not lose time in earning a degree? We will learn how we can do better to serve those students who may not have all the advantages coming in the door.

We enter Black History Month with a re-launch of our campus diversity committee, newly named the Committee for Excellence in Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. I am excited to see what kinds of projects and initiatives can come out of this new group and how we may use their expertise to be a better UH Hilo.

A timely development to celebrate during ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi Month is the receipt of an exciting grant awarded to Ka Haka ʻUla O Ke‘elikōlani College of Hawaiian Language. The college has received a four-year early literacy grant from Hawaiʻi P-20 Partnerships for Education based out of UH Mānoa. The grant will create a comprehensive evidence-based early literacy program for children, birth through kindergarten, for a majority of Hawaiian language medium early learners statewide. These literacy efforts should also help more students see college, especially UH, as an attainable goal.

The Hale Kuamoʻo Hawaiian Language Center will oversee the project in conjunction with its partners ʻImiloa Astronomy Center, Ke Kula ‘O Nāwahīokalani’ōpuʻu Iki Lab Public Charter School, and ʻAha Pūnana Leo. Year one amount is $228,000.

UH Hilo also sees this project as an additional asset for university students training in our Hawaiian and Indigenous Language Medium Early Education Certificate and Kahuawaiola Indigenous Teacher Education Graduate Certificate programs. Currently, Kahuawaiola is the only program approved for the Hawaiian medium preschool license by the Hawaiʻi Teacher’s Standards Board.

Opportunities like this make me optimistic for our future. Like many others, I was in awe listening to the young poet Amanda Gorman at the presidential inauguration. I was particularly moved by the last few lines:

The new dawn blooms as we free it

For there is always light,

if only we’re brave enough to see it

If only we’re brave enough to be it

As we emerge from Covid times I am filled with hope. Every time I look out and see the sun rise over the ocean here from East Hawai’i, I think of new beginnings, new opportunities, new hope, and our duty to ensure that each of our students shares those feelings.

Aloha,

Bonnie D. Irwin