In 2021, as pandemic effects seeped into everyday life, not only were university students struggling academically, they also encountered challenges with mental health.
Through a combination of state and non-profit support, Julie Mowrer, director of the Center for Community Engagement (CCE) at the University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo, responded quickly to students’ malaise and put together a needs-based support program. The UH Hilo Bonner Program connects students with community organizations to help them with network building and to stimulate self-esteem, academic and workforce skills and personal growth. It’s part of a nation-wide non-profit program dedicated to advancing higher education through universities engaging with their communities.
“The goal of the program is to provide students with a network of peers, mentors from the university, the community, and the wider Bonner network, offering connections and a web of support for students to lean on when challenges occur,” explained Mowrer.
Bonner students serve in the program for four years while being paid for more than 280 hours of work per year, which includes environmental work and service in the community. According to Mowrer, there’s a national focus on providing students with a more holistic educational experience, with more emphasis on ways to build students’ sense of belonging, connection with peers and developing a stronger sense of place.
Last April, students Devin Brown and Lavinia Manufekai collaborated with Hope Services Hawaiʻi to plan and cook a meal for 125 clients in shelters. They shared their Bonner program experiences at the 2022 Hawaiʻi GEER Summit on Oʻahu.
More funding needed
Funding for the program started from the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund aimed to support programs addressing the impact of the pandemic on students, families and educators across the state. UH Hilo’s CCE was one of 31 recipients in the state to be awarded. The state funding concluded last October. Mowrer is now building philanthropic and UH support to sustain the program.
Bonner students complete capstone projects that incorporate community or environmental work. Amena Tep, who is earning degrees in political science and administration of justice, is working with the Hawaiʻi Island mayor’s office and the National Alliance on Mental Illness to better integrate mental health resources and awareness into the Bonner Program itself.
“The goal of my capstone is for people to feel comfortable discussing mental health in the first place, which is something quite difficult to do,” explained Tep. “I want the Bonner Program to be a safe place for its students to talk as well as hopefully expanding this ideology campus-wide at some point.”
UH Hilo faculty mentor students for four years and serve as a support base as they consider different decisions and pathways through their academic journey.
—By Maisie Paulson, UH Hilo student