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Chancellor Solemsaas shares three-part vision with community

NOTE: This is a series of columns Hawai'i Community College Chancellor Rachel Solemsaas shared in several chamber of commerce newsletters in December 2016 and January and February 2017

My first 100 days: forming a vision


I recently passed the 100 day mark as Chancellor of Hawai’i Community College and I am happy to report that my first impressions of the campus and community continue to hold true today.

Hawai'i CC is filled with faculty and staff committed to the success of students. The Hawai'i Island community shares this commitment and is incredibly supportive of the college and its mission to improve the lives of individuals and thus the wider community. Mahalo for your support.

One of my goals for the first 100 days was to meet as many people as possible, learn as much as possible, and begin to develop a vision for how to fulfill our kuleana of supporting individuals to achieve their educational goals. 

Looking towards the future, it is clear from what I have gathered and learned so far that it is our commitment to support students who then graduate and become skilled workers or innovative entrepreneurs while nurturing them to be engaged as members of our community. 

In my next several columns I plan to share this vision in three parts:

  • The first part is focused on eliminating barriers to success so that first-generation college students, those from low-income backgrounds, and those from ethnic backgrounds traditionally underserved by higher education are able to enroll and succeed at Hawai‘i Community College.

  • The second involves finding ways to support the incubation of new and emerging industries and jobs that would benefit our graduates and residents of Hawai‘i Island.

  • And the third is a vision for developing 21st century educational learning capacities so we are successfully serving all regions of Hawai‘i Island, whether it is through our campus in Hilo or at Palamanui, through service centers in the north and south of the Island, or through distance (online) education.

Eliminating barriers, creating opportunities

College education is more important than ever for finding success in the workforce. Of the 11.6 million jobs added since the recession bottomed out, 11.5 million -- or 99 percent -- have gone to people with some college education, according to the “America’s Divided Recovery,” a 2016 report from Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce. Just 1 percent have gone to people with high school education or less.

That’s a staggering figure demonstrating the importance of college in today’s job market.

But despite the support systems that already exist, getting that college education can be incredibly challenging for students from lower economic backgrounds, first-generation college students who may not have family support, and students from traditionally underserved ethnic backgrounds like Native Hawaiians, Filipinos and Pacific Islanders.

Hawai‘i CC has a very high percentage of students who fit these descriptions. For example, the way colleges and universities around the country calculate the number of students of lower socioeconomic status is by looking at the number of students receiving federal Pell grants. For fall 2016, 64% of Hawai‘i CC students received need-based Pell grants. That’s the highest percentage of any of the 10 campuses in the University of Hawai’i system.

In addition, though the cost of attending Hawai‘i CC is lower than many colleges, when you compare it to the family incomes of many on this island, it’s often a huge hurdle.

Despite financial assistance, students often have unmet financial need and struggle with housing, transportation, and childcare. Many of our students work and have families they need to care for. We have students who are homeless. When students are struggling with basic needs, that becomes the priority and academic work is sometimes forced to take backseat, resulting in student drop outs.

Eliminating the barriers that sometimes prevent these and other students from succeeding needs to be part of our vision.

So what do we do?

One of my main goals is to increase the amount of scholarships we are able to provide students. In addition, it’s critical to accompany scholarships with “wrap-around” support services that students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds often need.

Hawai‘i CC is thrilled to have the support of community members and organizations that have donated funds over the years for student scholarships. Seeing scholarship recipients succeed, graduate and thrive is so rewarding for everyone involved.

Although we have seen increases in scholarship contributions, the fact remains that last year Hawai‘i CC received the lowest amount of private donations of all the campuses in the University of Hawai‘i system. So we have some of the highest need and some of the lowest private financial support. That’s a gap I hope we can close, so that we are doing everything we can to ensure students enroll, succeed and graduate with the skills and credentials that will help them thrive in the post-recession economy.

Next month, I look forward to sharing my vision to establish Hawai‘i CC as an institution that is capable of incubating emerging industries and helping existing industries adapt in order to develop more good paying jobs for Hawai’i Island residents.


Rachel Solemsaas


Supporting emerging, changing and diversifying industries


I hope everyone has had a happy holiday season celebrating with friends and family. The transition to the New Year is a good time for reflecting on the past and looking to the future. And it’s with an eye on the future that I want to talk about one of the initiatives I plan to focus on this coming year and beyond.

With the assistance of the campus and the community, I would like to develop funding that will allow Hawai‘i Community College to support and partner with industries that are emerging, changing or diversifying.

Hawai‘i Community College, since it was founded in 1941, has played an important role in creating a trained workforce that meets the needs of local employers, whether it’s in automotive, construction, healthcare, hospitality, or another sector.

The college continues to collaborate with industry groups and partners. Several Hawai‘i Community College administrators attended the Hawai‘i Sector Summit on December 5 and 6. At the Hawaii Sector Summit, the Hawai‘i Island participants agreed to engage key leaders in the agri-products sector, including both the growers and the agri-products innovators, to develop this sector further. 

I recently joined the Hawai‘i County Workforce Development Board. Our programs continue their partnerships through their Program Advisory Councils and other industry contacts. I am fortunate to receive excellent advice from the Chancellor’s Advisory Council. And we have a strong partnership with the Kona-Kohala Chamber of Commerce. It is through the active participation of industry leaders with the college, that we are able to explore emerging opportunities. For instance, we are constantly hearing strong interest for a mechanical technician pathway that provides core training that can then be specialized to marine science, avionics, building maintenance, auto, trades and possibly other concentrations.

For Hawai‘i Community College to be an effective partner in the process of nurturing emerging, changing and diversifying industries, we need to be nimble, timely, responsive and effective in developing workforce related programs. Often, this requires re-purposing existing resources, leveraging capacity from partners, plus tapping investment funds available for workforce development. This is similar to investments made for research and developments. 

Even if a business or entrepreneur has funding to support research, development and production of a new product, for example, they might not have funds to help develop the training at the community college to create the skilled workforce they need. With the right investment or funding, we could explore the possibility of developing curriculum, secure necessary instructional materials, equipment and space, and train new faculty or lecturers in this field.

To act quickly and efficiently on program needs like this, I believe we need a community based  investment that could help us develop the education and training pathways that can support these opportunities.

The ultimate goal is strong industries and good jobs for Hawai‘i Island residents.


Rachel Solemsaas


Serving island-wide with 21st century facilities


In previous columns I’ve shared two parts of our three-part vision for advancing Hawai‘i Community College, building student success, and fulfilling our role in the community. This includes building a flexible scholarship fund and pairing it with intensive student services, and building our capacity to help incubate emerging and evolving industries.

The third part of this vision, formed with input from the campus and the community, is to successfully serve island-wide with 21st century facilities.

Hawai‘i Community College was founded in Hilo in 1941 as the Hawaii Vocational School. In 1956 the college moved to a new campus at Manono Street and was re-named the Hawaii Technical School. This has been our main campus since, and has served us well over the past six decades.

However, the time has come to redevelop the campus, as there are numerous shortcomings at the existing campus and temporary fixes no longer make sense.

We have classes and facilities at the Manono campus and UH Hilo, creating logistical problems for students who travel between the two. Science lab space is very limited, which is hurting our ability to grow enrollment in valuable Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) programs. Buildings are not optimized for sustainability and energy conservation. We have very limited shop space for the apprenticeship program. Many of our buildings are “portables” intended for temporary use.

These are just a few examples.

In this year’s UH legislative budget request is a $2,000 placeholder as we explore two options: relocating above Komohana Street or redeveloping the Manono site. Both have strengths and weaknesses, and with direction from the Board of Regents, we will select the location. Then it will be an all-hands-on-deck effort (with state, federal and local support for funding, plus creative financing models) to ensure we don’t wait 20 years for much needed upgrades.

In West Hawai‘i, we opened the doors in Fall 2015 to a brand-new, state-of-the-art campus named Hawai‘i Community College – Pālamanui. Enrollment at Pālamanui grew 10% from Fall 2015 to Fall 2016, and the strategy now is to continue developing programs that are valuable to the community. To accomplish this, there will be some facility needs. For example, we plan to offer an Associate in Science in Natural Science degree that prepares students to transfer to four-year STEM programs. This will be a terrific academic option for students who want to stay in West Hawai‘i, study in a high-quality STEM program, and save money by starting at a community college. However, to sustain this program we will need a physics lab, which is also a need in Hilo.

With strategic investments and partnerships, we should be able to offer classes in northern and southern parts of the island. In Honoka‘a, for instance, we have the North Hawai‘i Education and Research Center (NHERC), and the legislature has provided $9 million for remodeling there. Facility design is underway. The concept is to use distance learning for lectures so students can access courses at Manono and Pālamanui while lab classes are available on site. A similar model could work in Ka‘u.

Hawai‘i Community College’s mission statement affirms that “we are committed to serving all segments of our Hawaiʻi Island community.” This applies to the different demographics of our diverse community, but it also applies to the different regions of Hawai‘i Island. I look forward to working with the campus and the community to ensure we are fulfilling our mission.


Rachel Solemsaas