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The University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa College of Education Center on Disability Studies received a $700,000 boost from Oak Foundation to assist students with learning differences to succeed in college. The award funds the development of innovative online modules to help faculty, staff and administrators improve their interactions with students with learning differences, as well as Indigenous students such as Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders, by reflecting on their current practices and shifting their attitudes to and awareness of their differences.

“This large donation will help our center revamp innovative, online modules, and give our future teachers, faculty, staff and administrators the foundational skills and effective strategies they need to engage and reach all individuals regardless of a students’ preferred learning, studying styles or cultural backgrounds,” said Interim Director of the Center on Disability Studies Kiriko Takahashi.

The award also enables faculty, staff and administrators to boost their knowledge of legal mandates and policies for accommodating such students, and aims to increase their skills to support students with learning differences from diverse cultural backgrounds. Some of the ways they may achieve this is by creating a welcoming classroom for all students, applying Universal Design for Learning principles (a way of thinking about teaching and learning that helps give all students an equal opportunity to succeed) and utilizing technology tools and software in the classroom to reach all kinds of learners, bringing appropriate cultural relevance into teaching to reach Indigenous students and demonstrating equity and equal opportunity across all students when teaching students with diverse needs.

Students with specific learning disabilities—and other neurodiverse students such as those with attention deficits, sensory processing disorders and executive function challenges—face multiple barriers to success in higher education. Students with learning differences from underrepresented communities, including Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders, face additional obstacles to academic success.

“This project is unique in that it will be implemented in one of the most diverse campus environments within the United States. Through this project, we hope to identify the strategies that are effective for students with learning differences who are also Indigenous, impacting their access to, retention, and completion of higher education programs of study,” said UH Mānoa Provost Michael Bruno. “The pandemic impacted both instructors and students in many different ways. With this generous award from Oak Foundation, we can also assess the impact of the pandemic on learning and use of technology by students with learning differences and those from Indigenous groups. Our findings will provide new insights and tools to help our students and educators succeed.”

Bethiel Girma Holton, Oak Foundation’s learning differences program officer, said, “Oak Foundation is proud to partner with the University of Hawaiʻi in its effort to think about students with learning differences, especially Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander students, holistically to increase their graduation rates and chances of success. By giving faculty the skills they need to teach and support these students who have been particularly affected by the challenges of remote learning during the COVID-19 pandemic, they are able to respond to each student’s unique talents and potential.”

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