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UH's 'Achieving the Dream' helps Native Hawaiian students succeed

By MRC Greenwood

LAST UPDATED: 2:23 p.m. HST, Aug 5, 2011

Few would argue that a college education creates opportunities for a better life. Community colleges, with their low cost and open access, are the entry point for many who have traditionally been left out of higher education. But for too many Native Hawaiians, the possibility of those opportunities was not even a dream. They have consistently been under-represented in terms of enrollment, retention, graduation and transfer.

In 2007, with the support of Kamehameha Schools and the Office of Hawaiian Affairs in the amount of $500,000 each pledged over five years, the University of Hawaii Community Colleges joined the national community college program "Achieving the Dream," focusing on student success for those populations that have been underserved in higher education. Our targeted population was, of course, Native Hawaiian students.

Four years later, the number of Native Hawaiian students in the UH system has doubled, from 4,600 to 9,200, now more than 27 percent of the student body of Hawaii's community colleges.

This past year the number of Native Hawaiian students graduating from a community college jumped 35 percent and the number of students transferring on to baccalaureate programs within the University increased 32 percent.

What did we do to achieve these results? Funding from OHA and Kamehameha enabled us to, among other activities, increase financial assistance to students so that cost would not be a barrier to higher education. Through concerted efforts to reach out, contact and assist students and their families in applying for scholarships and other forms of financial support, we have significantly increased the awarding of federal financial aid to students. In addition, the community colleges quadrupled their own tuition assistance.

The net result is that financial aid to Native Hawaiian students increased from $4.5 million to $15.4 million in just three years.

Many Native Hawaiian students are the first in their families to attend college. Recognizing this, we created First Year Experience programs, providing developmental work in math and English and other needed skills. All campuses have established Native Hawaiian student success centers that build on Native Hawaiian cultural values to support students through to success. While these efforts focused on Native Hawaiian students, all students benefited from the improvements in financial aid, developmental education, and student support.

"Kauwila," a young mother who lost a two-decades long career when Aloha Airlines went under, is earning her bachelor's in public administration and pursuing her dream of owning a home on Hawaiian Homestead lands.

An intern at a local farming company, "Sam" from Waianae has been selected by the Kellogg Foundation for a national conference on sustainable agriculture.

"Bernie" overcame the challenges of being raised by a single parent to work on her teaching degree and serve as an elected student government representative.

These are just three examples of the many ways Achieving the Dream is transforming Native Hawaiian lives through access to education.

Mostly though, the success has been about intent. Community college faculty and staff embraced the Board of Regents' commitment to make the University of Hawaii the premier indigenous serving higher education institution, and this is just one example of how we're going about doing that. We set very specific goals and monitor them regularly. We reached out to expand our offerings in traditional Native Hawaiian communities like Waianae, Waimanalo and on the Big Island because we know when our host culture benefits, we all benefit.

We want to turn impossibilities into dreams and dreams into realities.

Achieving the Dream has provided an invaluable foundation for us at Hawaii's only public institution of higher education to achieve our own dream; a Hawaii where Native Hawaiians have the full benefits and opportunities created by higher education.

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