Confluence and influence

Several months ago at a community conversation, I was asked to share my water source. I spoke about how I gain strength from being able to see the ocean every day, a benefit I enjoyed living in California and now in Hawaii.

If I go back to my roots in the Midwest, however, it is about lakes and rivers. Most creeks, and rivers in Illinois, eventually find their way to the Mississippi River, whose large expanse irrigates the rich farmland.


Creeks, streams, and rivers from the Appalachian Mountains to the Rockies all feed into the Mississippi, which bisects the continent from Minnesota all the way to New Orleans, running through or along 10 states.

All these little waterways feeding into the large ones come to mind when I think of the planning we are currently engaged in throughout our communities and institutions. The University of Hawaii System is planning its strategic directions for the third decade as well as working on a new master plan for Maunakea stewardship, and the Hawaii Community Foundation and the Hawaii Executive Collaborative are working within the Change Framework.

‘Aina Aloha Economic Futures has developed an action agenda that is built on Native Hawaiian voices, values and experiences. Here on Hawaii Island, we have the Vibrant Hawaii resilience hubs and streams. State and county governments are always looking ahead with task groups, plans and initiatives. All these efforts are focused on a better future for our place and our people.

There are many overlaps among these initiatives, and some are engaged in communication with one another. As I lead UH-Hilo through our own planning process, the sheer number of plans and initiatives is daunting to sort through. We often talk about not being able to be all things to all people, but as an institution, we are committed to educating students, especially those on Hawaii Island, and to making this place in which we live better in whatever ways we can.

Our island and our community are gifts, and at the university we need to do our best to pay that forward. We are looking closely at where we connect, where we can make the best contributions and how we flow into the larger initiatives around us.

Where is the confluence and where is the influence?

University chancellors and presidents often think in terms of legacies. New buildings, new endowments, institutional growth are all important to be sure, but the real legacy is our alumni, many of whom I see actively engaged in these community planning efforts. In this way, the university has confluence and influence.

To quote one of my favorite novels, “Siddhartha,” by Hermann Hesse:

[Govinda] no longer saw the face of his friend Siddhartha, instead he saw other faces, many, a long sequence, a flowing river of faces, of hundreds, of thousands, which all came and disappeared, and yet all seemed to be there simultaneously, which all constantly changed and renewed themselves, and which were still all Siddhartha.

I have always been struck by this image of a river of people, all of whom are different yet the same, separated in time, but coming together through their relationship with a single place in a single moment.

This May, UH-Hilo will graduate its 50th baccalaureate class, and as I reflect on the generations of teachers and students who have passed through our institution, I am proud and humbled.

I am proud to be part of an institution that has been part of this community for so long, and humbled by the accomplishments of so many who have come before me.

Like the confluence of rivers, students and employees have come from other states and other nations, other islands and other towns, to meet in Hilo. Some come from families who have lived on this island for decades, and some just pass through in four years.


All are part of our story and our contributions to the community and the world. And despite the different places from which we come, we are one UH-Hilo.

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

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