As I write this, we just concluded the fall semester. Our virtual fall 2020 commencement celebration and the first live drive-through ceremony in the history of the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo were a great success. I am incredibly proud of all our graduates and what they accomplished during these truly challenging times. We all need a little celebration in our lives, and these students have earned our praise. 

This success would not have been possible without the hard work of our stellar faculty and staff who weathered a difficult semester delivering quality education and services not only to graduates but to all our students. Everyone rose to the challenge, and many faculty new to teaching online spent countless hours in elective training to enhance web-based learning for their students.

Professor of Japanese Yoshiko Okuyama says the university’s moral and financial support for faculty technology training, and assistance from our distance learning team, helped immensely in converting courses into full-fledged online classes. Kris Roney, UH Hilo’s vice chancellor for academic affairs, informed Prof. Okuyama and her colleagues about a six-week program for foreign language teachers run by the Center for Language and Technology based at UH Mānoa. Prof. Okuyama says she seized on the opportunity and completed the training for computer-assisted language instruction.  

Professor of Chemistry Norbert Furumo, new to web-based teaching, quickly discovered that the conversion to delivering classes in an online space wasn’t just a major adjustment for students, but for educators, too. As he himself learned about online formats and adjusted his classes, he advised his students to continue to work toward their degrees. “Do not sit out a semester or two because classes are online. Online classes may be around for a while so stay on track to achieve your life’s goals.”

Faculty who had been teaching online for years still had some adjustments to make.

Professor of Psychology Cheryl Ramos, despite her own familiarity with online teaching, kept the new challenges and stresses students now face at the forefront of her planning. “What kind of internet connection do they have? What kind of space and home environment do they have to do work remotely?” Her students felt cared for, keeping burnout and stress at bay.

Many of our professors say that although online classes can be a challenge, silver linings are everywhere. Marine biologist Tim Grabowski sees the inconveniences and discomforts of online learning as an opportunity for future conservation biologists to train for global teleconferencing and collaboration. Language faculty Monica Minnitt and Faith Mishima see opportunities to invest in our students in new and exciting ways, “being more merciful but not lenient, more understanding but also more involved.”

This can-do spirit and determination are what got us through the pandemic thus far, and will see us through the next semester, too. So now we look to 2021 and exciting things to come. Here are examples.

UH Hilo Kīpuka Native Hawaiian Student Center received a new Title III Native Hawaiian-Serving Institutions grant that will support retention and graduation rates, allowing us to continue to enhance our support of Native Hawaiian students. The UH Hilo Student Support Services Program received another U.S. Department of Education TRIO grant award that will allow the program to continue providing services to low income and first generation UH Hilo students for another five years. These efforts support students staying on course and getting closer to the goal of graduation.

Looking to boost our island’s economic recovery, the College of Business and Economics is offering three courses this semester geared toward executive education. The courses are on real estate investment, career exploration in management, and digital business development and marketing. Each course draws on the college’s particular pool of expertise and is geared toward managerial or executive level students who are likely to have college degrees already.

Our data visualization projects continue, one of which has master printmaker Jon Goebel and marine scientist John Burns teamed up to create an enlarged 3D sculpture of a coral colony. The project is meant to spark a perceptual shift in viewers about the significance that corals play in the ocean’s ecosystem. The project is but one of many we hope will come out of our data science team, who are also in the process of developing a new major for students to learn important skills in big data that are behind so much of what we do today, whether it be in science, business, or health care.

UH Hilo is an ideal place for interdisciplinary teams like this to come together to address the big issues, and I am confident that we will be able to continue to serve our island and see more happy graduates in the years to come.

I wish you all a happy and safe new year!

Aloha,

Bonnie D. Irwin