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OHA: Office of Hawaiian Affairs

To increase college graduation rates, OHA works closely with community-based partners like Hawai'i Community Foundation, which every year awards 200 OHA scholarships meant to help reduce the financial burden placed on Native Hawaiian students pursuing a college education. This year OHA is also working with the University of Hawai'i to offer the Native Hawaiian Science & Engineering Mentorship Program (NHSEMP) Scholarship. This provides scholarships and wrap-around services for students of Hawaiian ancestry pursuing STEM degrees at all of the University of Hawai'i campuses. Priority will be given to non-traditional students.

OHA’s commitment to education

If you were to draw up a list of the top priorities at the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, improving education in the Hawaiian community would rank near the top.

Just ask Dr. Lisa Watkins-Victorino, an executive at OHA who is leading the agency’s efforts to approach its commitment to Hawaiian education with a renewed sense of urgency.

Called the “Education Strategic Priority Results Initiative,” the effort hinges on two goals.

“The first is to increase the percentage of Native Hawaiian students who meet or exceed reading and math standards at the middle and high school levels,” said Watkins-Victorino, who is OHA’s Research Director. “The second goal is to increase the graduation rate at a post-secondary level. The strategic priority results initiative’s task is to identify ways OHA can support and contribute to systemic level change.”

To increase college graduation rates, OHA works closely with community-based partners like Hawai’i Community Foundation, which every year awards 200 OHA scholarships meant to help reduce the financial burden placed on Native Hawaiian students pursuing a college education.

“Some of the challenges facing our Hawaiian students are not much different from others applying for scholarships,” said Eric La’a, scholarship officer for Hawai’i Community Foundation, whose average OHA scholarship is about $2,000. “Two of the biggest challenges involve some of these students coming from families of low socio-economic status. The other big challenge is the rising cost of college, which has doubled in the last 10 years. And 75 percent of our students are considered non-traditional students, which means they are attending on a part-time basis because they are juggling families or jobs.”

This year OHA is also working with the University of Hawai’i to offer the Native Hawaiian Science & Engineering Mentorship Program (NHSEMP) Scholarship. This provides scholarships and wrap-around services for students of Hawaiian ancestry pursuing STEM degrees at all of the University of Hawai’i campuses. Priority will be given to non-traditional students.

“One of the reasons why we are focusing on STEM is because it is one of the fields where Hawaiians are the most under represented,” said Dr. Josh Ka’akua, NHSEMP Director. “Also, STEM graduates have shown to have the highest job stability, and opportunities for economic self-sufficiency that lead to increases in family income.”

Kapo Cope is among the students who have received some of the $500,000 in scholarship money that OHA awards every year.

“It has actually helped me a lot to further my education to help my family and my community,” said Cope, 22, a senior who is pursuing college degrees in communications and Hawaiian Language at the University of Hawai’i at Manoʻa. “Without the OHA scholarship, it would have taken me a lot longer to graduate.”

While the trend shows increasingly more Native Hawaiian students attending and graduating college, the education initiative has set its sight on even greater results.

“The data is encouraging,” Watkins-Victorino said. “But when we look further, we can see that our students are getting degrees in associate and bachelor levels. Fewer go on to master’s degrees; and even fewer go on to get their doctorate degrees. So, there’s a lot of work to be done. So at OHA, there’s a renewed commitment to helping our Native Hawaiian students improve their educational outcomes.”

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