Skip to main content
Mitchell K. Dwyer   |   Staff Writer
August 2, 2023
  • Bonner Program participants

UH Hilo’s Bonner Program provides paid opportunities for students to develop as leaders with positive impact on their communities. Through self-reflection, leadership training and partnerships with local organizations, students gain real-world skills positioning them for fulfilling careers and lives of impact.

Students spend eight to 10 hours a week in service activities with Hawaiʻi Island organizations. They also meet weekly to explore social justice, examine community issues, develop cultural humility, and build relationships with one another and with their community partners.

Each year introduces a new cohort to the program. Continuing cohorts deepen their community efforts, remaining together through all four years of undergraduate study with culminating capstone projects developed by each student according to their passions and concerns.

A more sustainable place

Devin Brown, a senior geography major with a geology minor, is in his third year as a Bonner leader. For his capstone project, he’s working with NO POHŌ, a program affiliated with Zero Waste Hawai‘i Island, to reduce waste at UH Hilo.

Zero Waste Hawaiʻi Island purchases new glass bottles for The Locavore Store’s in-house coconut water and cold-brewed coffee in downtown Hilo. “Customers return the bottles, receiving a $.50 store credit for each bottle,” Devin says. “Then Zero Waste Hawaiʻi Island washes them for reuse by the Locavore Store. The store credit is incentive for consumers to return the bottles, removing thousands of plastic bottles from the waste stream. It’s also more economically stable for the business, as the cost of purchasing single-use packaging is greater than the one-time cost of reusable bottles.”

The system is beneficial to the consumer, the producer, and the environment, Devin explains. “My plan is to bring this reusable system to UH Hilo, helping to keep our campus and Hawaiʻi a more sustainable place.”

“Devin is helping make an impact in our community through his work,” says Ellen Okuma of NO POHŌ and Zero Waste Hawai‘i Island. “We are mentoring him in the development of his capstone project of bringing reusable food ware to the campus. I am excited to continue working with him!”

Bonner Program participants

Connecting with community – and each other

Amena Tep, who graduated in May with a double major in political science and administration of justice, developed her capstone project as a mental health initiative on the UH Hilo campus. She interviewed students about their experiences with – and attitudes about – mental health, presenting her findings and recommending actions that faculty and staff could take fairly easily.

“My mental health journey began with cultural norms that shut down discussion about mental health,” she says, “and it silenced me for most of my life. Once I reached college, I gained the confidence to go against these norms, and to normalize talking about mental health.”

Amena says, “The Bonner Program allowed me to gain confidence by allowing my cohort and me to talk about our deep, personal struggles, and how we can tackle them. It helped us to gain knowledge about each other, bringing us closer, so we acted as a unit when we went into the community. The Bonner program is much more than volunteering; it really allows students to build connections with each other and with people we meet in the community.”

Waves of change from Hilo to the world

The Bonner Program aims for meaningful, lasting impact on students and the planet. Students’ learning and networking lead to improved academic performance as well as careers and lives of engagement. Their paid internships build Hawaiʻi Island organizations’ capacity for serving the community, and their capstone projects reflect their visions for changing the world.

“Engaging in community effectively must be grounded in an understanding of the history and culture of place,” says Julie Mowrer, Director of UH Hilo’s Center for Community Engagement. “Learning about our Hawaiʻi Island community from our community members honors their knowledge, creating the foundation needed for students to enter into thoughtful conversations about issues of public consequence.”

Susan McGovern of the National Alliance on Mental Illness – Big Island says the Bonner students are “incredible examples of young people engaged in their educations and actively wanting to make a difference in their community.”

Community support for community impact

The Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund provided initial funding for establishing the Bonner program at UH Hilo. The Kirk-Landry Charitable Fund, recognizing the value of this program for student success, augmented university resources for the program’s continuation.

“The Kirk-Landry Charitable Fund is honored to contribute to this extraordinary program which fosters youth success and community engagement, sustaining the efforts already in place at the UH Hilo campus,” says Caroline Landry. “It provides hands-on training to students in supporting their community, so they gain rewarding educational experiences to guide them in shaping their future. In doing so, they learn that their contributions have meaning. They create a context bringing possibilities for themselves and other young people to thrive, whether they remain here on island or take their learning to the rest of the world. Investing in UH Hilo is investing in Hawaiʻi Island’s future and all our futures.”

Bonner Program Coordinator Maria Vicente agrees. She says, “These outstanding students are making meaningful connections between their passions and their academics, helping them become true changemakers. I’m excited to see the positive long-term impact it will undoubtedly have on our students and community.”

If you would like to learn how you can support UH students and programs like this, please contact us at 808 376-7800 or send us a message.