When the pandemic grounded most air travel last year, Bay Area resident Joby Kekapu Tom, who usually comes to Oahu to visit family once or twice a year and had not flown back since 2019, was missing home.

So Tom, a Native Hawaiian who wanted to improve her knowledge of the language, jumped at the opportunity to enroll in an online Hawaiian Studies program via Windward Community College that began in October.

“It was the Hawaiian-ness of it all. It made me feel that much more connected,” said Tom, a compliance officer for a financial institution in San Francisco. “If it wasn’t for COVID, I actually wouldn’t be enrolled in this program because I flew so much (for work).”

Windward Community College.
Windward Community College started offering a fully online Hawaiian Studies program in October. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

The Hawaiian Studies program, which offers an associate of arts degree, has been available for students on the college’s Kaneohe campus since 2012 but was forced to go online along with other classes when the coronavirus pandemic hit last year. That paved the way for the college to offer a fully online degree program to the vast Hawaiian diaspora.

Hawaiian Studies administrators had been brainstorming ways to bring the program online since 2017, but they were still surprised by the flood of applicants from all corners of the United States. The University of Hawaii Manoa and Brigham Young University-Hawaii also offer Hawaiian studies programs, but the Windward college’s Hawaiiloa program is the first all-online option.

Joby Tom, Hawaiiloa, Windward Community College
Joby Tom jumped at the opportunity to enroll in an online Hawaiian Studies program via Windward Community College. Courtesy: Joby Tom

“We’ve been wanting to put the entire degree online for a long time, but not all of our professors and classes were ready to do that,” said Kalawaia Moore, director and associate professor of Hawaiian Studies. “The pandemic really forced everyone’s hand.”

The college relied on personal networks, word of mouth and social media advertisements to find students. Administrators were surprised by the flood of applications, which came from Florida, Illinois, South Carolina, New York City, Utah, Texas, Nevada, Oregon and California — in addition to neighbor islands like Kauai and the Big Island.

Before Hawaiiloa officially launched, the college received 300 inquiries based on an online interest form for a program that initially was designed with only 20 spots in mind. Windward had to add two more classes, ultimately accepting 55 students in the first group.

“Coconut wireless totally happened,” said Makamae Sniffen, the college’s evening and online counselor and coordinator. “A couple of email blasts and it totally spread from there.”

Widespread Interest

The first batch of students who started in October and will graduate next spring included 29 Hawaii residents and 26 nonresidents. Their average age is 40, compared with 25 for on-campus students. The oldest student is 80; the youngest 18. All but four are women.

A second group that began in January has 39 students, including 24 Hawaii residents and 15 nonresidents, according to Sniffen. A third cohort that begins this fall already has 40 students signed up.

Many of these students are nontraditional: adults who have full-time jobs or who are returning to higher education after some time away. It’s not vocational training or career-focused skill sets they’re after, but an exploration into personal identity to get closer to their roots.

“They are Native Hawaiian, living away from home, missing home, wanting to learn about their culture,” said Colette Higgins, a dean of academic affairs at the college. “It’s a heritage thing, passing it to the next generation. So many are living on the continent but not knowing about their own culture.”

Sarah Malia Antoncich, a teacher and mother of two who lives in Washington state, has family on Maui and Hawaii island. She also comes back to Hawaii about once a year for family reunions. Her mother grew up on Oahu and is a 1968 graduate of Kamehameha Schools.

She first heard about Windward’s Hawaiiloa program through a post on the “Hawaiians in Washington” Facebook page.

Sarah Antoncich, Hawaiiloa, Windward Community College
Sarah Antoncich heard about Windward’s Hawaiiloa program through a post on the “Hawaiians in Washington” Facebook page. Courtesy: Sarah Antoncich

Antoncich said one of the biggest draws was the chance to take Hawaiian language classes online. She also spoke about the chance to hear stories from kupuna and learn from actual professors as opposed to taking “a correspondence course” that is a packaged video or readings on a website.

“There’s no precedent for this kind of learning,” she said. “The material we’re presented with is so intentional and it’s meant for people who want and need and deserve it.”

“Having a more solid foundation of knowing who I am and where I come from has kind of changed how I see myself in the world, and how I fit in the world,” she added.

Classes in the two-year online program include Hawaiian language, Composition, History of Hawaii, Introduction to Hawaiian Politics, Geology of the Islands, Polynesian surf culture, Introduction to Hawaiian Voyaging and Hawaiian music. Coursework may be completed at any time of day.

Students also have access to virtual study groups and virtual counseling or tutoring sessions with Windward staff. It’s brought many of the participants together in ways unimaginable before the pandemic.

“I’ve got to be honest, it’s intense,” said Tom, a Kaneohe native and Kamehameha Schools grad. “But it keeps us on our toes. We’ve all become extremely close. It’s built quite the community.”

Reversing Enrollment Declines?

The program’s success also is a silver lining for the University of Hawaii system, demonstrating how this can serve as a model for how colleges can adapt to financial challenges wrought by the pandemic.

The UH system — which includes the flagship Manoa campus, plus other four-year institutions like UH Hilo and UH West Oahu as well as seven community colleges — saw a 1.5% decrease in overall enrollment from fall 2019 to fall 2020. Among the community colleges alone, enrollment plummeted 7.6%, the steepest drop among the UH entities.

Meanwhile, the number of online classes in the UH system increased by 340% from 1,420 classes in the start of the 2019 academic year to 6,252 in 2020. Among the community colleges, the number of fully online courses went from 787 to 2,564 in the same period.

Hawaiiloa has also counteracted some of the pandemic-era losses for Windward CC, one of the smallest colleges in the system with 2,299 undergraduates enrolled.

University of Hawaii, UH, education, community college, enrollment
Enrollment at schools in the University of Hawaii system declined from 2019 to 2020. Source: UH Board of Regents Nov. 2020 materials

It also has a high concentration of Native Hawaiian students, with 53% students who are Native Hawaiian or part-Hawaiian.

“During the pandemic they were talking about collapsing a lot of our programs, but instead we ended up going into these conversations with the potential untapped market,” said Moore. “Our program is actually making money for our college during a downturn. That has totally changed the conversation.”

Indeed, the UH system is facing a shaky financial future due to declining enrollment spurred by the pandemic, with a 10% proposed cut to the system’s budget by state lawmakers this session.

The total cost of Hawaiiloa is $8,200, but Windward, which charges Hawaii residents $131 per credit and nonresidents $345 per credit for classes in general, has extended in-state tuition to Native Hawaiian students who live off the islands.

There are no plans to stop offering the online Hawaiian Studies associate degree, according to Moore. There have also been discussions about implementing a similar online Hawaiian Studies program that would offer a bachelor’s degree at UH West Oahu.

“The success of this program was sort of unexpected and we brought in a lot of new lecturers,” Moore said. “We’re going to take it as far as we can.”

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