Hawaii longs to become the destination of choice for English language and university students – not just honeymooners, writes Claudia Civinini.
The problem with Hawaii is that it has sold itself as a leisure destination way too effectively, Study Hawaii president Joel Weaver thinks.
‘When parents hear about Hawaii, they know it as a sunny, beautiful place, but don’t think of it as a safe, culturally welcoming place where their son or daughter could have a great educational experience,’ Weaver tells the Gazette.
The frustration with this perception led Weaver and others to create the Study Hawaii Educational Consortium back in 2006 with the help of the Department of Business and Economic Development and Tourism (DBEDT).
‘The DBEDT were open to the idea that education is a service export, something that would fall under their umbrella,’ Weaver said. With some funding from this agency – around $25,000–30,000 a year – the consortium started operating, and eventually gained non-profit status in 2011.
‘It’s a private entity, but our funding has been primarily through the state government,’ Weaver explains.
But now the consortium has decided to ramp up its efforts – and additional support will be needed. ‘A couple of years ago I approached StudentMarketing with the encouragement of DBEDT, who said that what legislators would really respond to is a clear strategic plan,’ Weaver says.
The ambitious 10-year plan aims to double the number of international students in the Aloha State by 2026, taking revenue from tuition fees from $142 million to $300 million.
This would generate an extra 8,234 jobs on top of the current 7,590 positions supported by the international education industry, according to StudentMarketing.
The plan comes at a challenging time for the US international education industry.
‘All of us since October 2016 have been nervously awaiting the “Trump effect”,’ says Weaver. ‘We didn’t have it last academic year, but indication based on the Open Doors report shows that applications are down, so we may be feeling this now. The US is in for a big shock as a whole, I think, as a result of government policies.
’Weaver adds that ‘other states like California, Texas and New York have put considerable resources into this effort, and we have been limping along with very minimal amount of support.’
As a comparison, other destinations such as South Australia had a budget of AU$ 9.9 million over four years, while New Zealand received NZ$ 6.8 million over four years in the 2017 budget. To fund the vision, the consortium has been lobbying state legislators.
Weaver says the association is hoping to receive $200–250K in funding soon to start projects such as a welcome desk at the airport and an ongoing support network for international students already in Hawaii. The association is also hoping to engage the private sector, asking businesses such as Hawaiian airlines to become associate members.
Weaver says the group is also hoping to build a more productive relationship with agents. ‘In the last decade this has been a really big turning point. American universities and colleges are becoming aware that agents are not unethical, and there are ways to work with agents well, like Australia, Canada, the UK, New Zealand have been doing for years – and eating our lunch in terms of English language education,’ says Weaver.
But how long will it take for the international education industry to disentangle itself from the tourism industry? Weaver is realistic. ‘I don’t anticipate us challenging the primacy of the tourism sector even in ten years,’ he says.
Make a song and dance about it
While kinaesthetic learning is certainly not a thing, dancing on the notes of the traditional Hawaiian Hula music is proving a valuable extracurricular activity for international ESL students at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. ‘Students learn new Hawaiian and English vocabulary, and I think the motions help them remember what they’re dancing about,’ course teacher Brianna Weaver told the Gazette.
But vocabulary is not what all this is about. The class, which has been running for a long time as part of the Hawaii English Language Programme (HELP) at UH Manoa, aims at introducing international students to Hawaii’s culture.
‘I always start the term with an overview of modern Hawaiian history,’ Ms Weaver told the Gazette.
International students performing at the opening ceremony of international education week - Courtesy: Claudia Civinini