Irwin: Welcoming the world to Hilo

Next weekend, Feb. 21 and 22, the University of Hawaii at Hilo will once again host International Nights at the Performing Arts Center on campus ( ).

For decades, UH-Hilo has been bringing the world to Hilo and Hawaii Island, and this event is one of the highlights of that work and a longstanding tradition of our community. We will see performances from across the globe as our international students share their cultural traditions with us.


Events such as International Nights epitomize the strength of international cooperation and sharing, and highlight the best of what we do as a university in terms of connecting people and creating a shared understanding of art and culture. We find in these events that despite our many differences, we also share a common love of music, dance and aesthetics — the very soul of humanity.

Yet this event is only a sample of the benefits of international exchange. UH-Hilo maintains partnerships with universities in 16 countries, and each year nearly 300 international students come to study at UH-Hilo. They come to us excited to learn about the many cultures of Hilo and the state, and stand in awe of the natural beauty of our island.

As they interact with our local students and citizens, we benefit from having the world come to us. This interchange allows our local students to become more adept at working in diverse environments and introduces them to different perspectives on issues from climate change to indigenous rights, and to business models to education systems, all without leaving the state.

For the Hilo and Hawaii students privileged enough to study abroad, there are opportunities for them to go to places they have only read or heard about. Some students choose to visit the place of their ancestry and create closer ties with their roots. Others may opt to study somewhere where a companion program to one of our majors exists. How are they studying marine science in Australia, and are they addressing similar challenges with coral bleaching at the Great Barrier Reef that we have seen on the Kona coast? How are indigenous people in Chile or Minnesota maintaining their culture in the face of progress?

No matter where our students opt to travel on exchange, they grow and change. I have written in this space before about the transformative impact that college and university attendance can have on students as they acquire new learning and are exposed to new ideas. Study abroad programs intensify that change and provide opportunities for students to grow and develop resilience and independence.

I was once privileged to teach a course that helped students who had studied abroad make sense of all they had learned and how they had changed. They mentioned feeling more independent and confident in themselves, precisely the characteristics we want to see in our graduates as they move into the world of work.

What was particularly interesting was that few of the students who had studied away had any inkling about what they had learned through the experience outside of improving their language skills and whatever they had learned in their classes. Then I asked a question: “How many of you got lost at some point during your study abroad experience?” Uncomfortable laughter followed as every hand in the room shot up.

We processed those experiences from a student just losing her way on a country road in England, to the student who lost her cell phone in Rome (and did not speak Italian). How did they find their way?

All the students had stories of how they analyzed the situation, figured out who to ask for assistance, and the various steps they had taken to get back on track: working with others, thinking critically and analytically about their options and figuring out a way to solve the problem.

Metaphorical light bulbs started coming on across the room as students marveled at what they had actually learned and how they had evolved into confident global citizens through their experiences.


One of my personal goals for UH-Hilo is to ensure that more students have access to these life-changing opportunities.

Bonnie D. Irwin is chancellor of the University of Hawaii at Hilo. Her column appears monthly in the Tribune-Herald.