In last month’s column, I wrote about enrollment trends and the associated data collecting we are doing to understand those trends. I asked the question: Why do certain students choose UH Hilo and how do we know who will thrive here? This is the overarching question that our recent data efforts seek to answer.

An interesting segment of our student population to look at is our international students, who are about 7% of UH Hilo’s total student body and enrich our entire campus in multitude of ways.

International students demonstrate higher retention rates than students from other geographic areas. Per our recent accreditation report, since fall 2015 UH Hilo has retained 78% of international students, the highest of any cohort. Once our international students make the choice to come to UH Hilo, they stick around! Indeed, during the pandemic, many of our international students were with us the whole time. Because they could not get home, UH Hilo worked hard to make them feel welcome on campus throughout the pandemic.

We have a healthy student representation from Europe and the Americas but most of our international students at UH Hilo come from the Pacific-Asia region. To answer the question about why they choose UH Hilo and why they stay, the first thing that stands out is their choice of programs, notably environmental and conservation programs such as marine science and geography and environmental studies, where their classroom is often a coral reef or a lava field.

Other popular majors are business, accounting, and political science. Still others come to us for the opportunity to compete in intercollegiate athletics. Many of these students use what they have learned in our classes and our community to help back home.

For students from the Pacific Islands, the diverse campus and island communities make it a comfortable, natural fit for them here. The university’s cultural and ethnic diversity, that I wrote about in last month’s column as being one of our greatest strengths, is highly valued by our international students—they feel welcome and accepted. 

They also perceive and experience Hilo as a safe place to live that is conducive to studying, which has become increasingly important to international students given the attention that gun violence in the U.S. gets around the world. International students also perceive and experience UH Hilo as a welcoming place for all people; this, too, has become increasingly important for international students looking to study in the U.S. in light of perceptions of anti-immigrant sentiment in the U.S. 

Once these students are with us, they have a wide range of support services available. The International Student Services program provides an array of services intentionally designed to meet their needs and interests. The program strives to offer a “one-stop shop” of services that are holistic and comprehensive and begin from the time a student is admitted through graduation and beyond. 

International students are thriving in their academics and excelling right through to graduation. After graduation, many return to their homelands to share their new-found knowledge and skills with their communities. 

Like many of our alumni, our international graduates are doing great things! Louisa Ponnnampalan, a 2003 alumna from Malaysia, for example, is the chair and co-founder of the MareCet Research Organization, Malaysia’s first nonprofit organization dedicated to the research and conservation of marine mammals and their environment. Alumna Uduch Sengebau Senior from Palau is a prominent judge, lawyer, and politician who currently serves as the vice president and minister of justice in her home community.

We are understandably proud of all our graduates, who are making contributions both locally here on island and also across the globe. One of the great benefits of our emerging from the pandemic is that we can once again welcome students not only from our local communities, but from across the globe. We can also once again provide opportunity for Hawai‘i Island students to study abroad. Our university truly has a global impact and we welcome the world to Hilo.

With aloha,

Bonnie D. Irwin