Irwin: The recipe for student success

Some recipes are simple on the surface, but need to be prepared a certain way for the dish to be a success; others are complicated, containing many ingredients.

Many of us have recipes that are not written down, but have been handed down for generations. Others were gifted to us by friends, found online or in the newspaper, or discovered by accident.


All can lead to a delicious meal, even better when shared with friends and family.

Likewise, finding the recipe for student success seems simple: Go to class, do homework, get good grades, graduate.

Indeed, the most important ingredient is the student herself, and she has to want to succeed for the rest of the recipe to work. However, lots of things get in the way of motivation.

Maybe the car breaks down, and there is no money to fix it — how to get to class?

Maybe the teacher appears to be speaking a foreign language, and she does not want to ask questions for fear someone will think less of her.

Maybe a family member is sick, and the student is worried or has to take a shift as a caretaker.

The recipe is simple, but sometimes the process is hard.

The other main ingredient is the college. The more we know about our students, the better job we can do to help that student achieve their dreams.

We know who we need: student peer mentors, talented and caring teachers and coaches, trained advisers and support staff. We also know what we need: facilities and equipment, well-functioning technology, libraries and other educational resources.

The hard part is often the mixing. Just like the students, we, too, have limited resources, and figuring out where to invest those resources presents challenges.

We also have to be motivated.

For decades, universities prided themselves on who they were keeping out. Professors used to proudly declare to a class of scared freshmen, “Half of you will fail this class.” College, the doorway to the American Dream, was only open to those who could run through it with ease. The recipe for success was a closely guarded secret that students had to guess at, keep tasting and trying and hoping to eventually get it right.

Times have changed. UH-Hilo was just named once again the most ethnically diverse university in the country.

In order to do right by all our students, we need a new recipe, and we need to recognize and value the assets our diverse population brings to our campus.

One of my favorite books is titled “Becoming a Student Ready College.” It describes that new recipe for higher education, one where we make sure we are ready for students and not insist that every student is entirely ready for us. The guiding principles are that all students can learn, and all people who work on campus can be educators and leaders.

If we are to follow that recipe, we need to get everyone involved in student success. A staff member who works on budgets all day or who cleans a residence hall or processes applications might not readily see a role for themselves in the success of our students, but we all work together to make sure our students have what they need to succeed and flourish.

The other ingredients we are adding to the mix are more and more experiences for students outside of class. Independent research, community service, studying abroad and leadership activities give our students at UH-Hilo ways to apply what they are learning, making it real and relevant to their lives.

Families and communities also have a key role to play. If you know a student in college, check in with them from time to time. Ask them how it is going. A student is never too old to be asked, “What did you learn in school today?”


This new recipe for student success is not spoiled by too many cooks. We all have a role, and when we get the recipe right, not only our students, but also our communities, will thrive.

Bonnie D. Irwin is the new chancellor of the University of Hawaii at Hilo. She began July 1. Her column appears monthly in the Tribune-Herald. Email comments to

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