Josh Levinson | Featured Civic Voice

It is graduation season and, in coming weeks, valedictorians will be honored for their academic prowess at commencement ceremonies throughout Hawaiʻi. We congratulate these students on their accomplishments.

And we believe there is more to being a “scholar” than good grades and high test scores. Across our islands, there are students who demonstrate the very things that make Hawaiʻi special—they care for their families and communities, understand who they are as individuals, honor their past, and cherish this place like a loved one. Yet our schools consistently give out awards for academic performance and extracurricular involvement, but less frequently recognize students for who they are as people—for their character and commitment to the things that make us proud to be of Hawaiʻi.

The Islander Scholars program honors public high school juniors who exemplify the values that make Hawaiʻi unique. Launched last year by Islander Institute, in partnership with Mālama Learning Center, Islander Scholars connects a select group of students to each other, forming a cohort of young leaders who can help Hawai‘i thrive in the future. The program seeks to lift island values to the pinnacle of achievement, where we believe they belong.

Beginning in 2016, high school principals at public and public charter schools were invited to recognize one junior from their school as an Islander Scholar, based on six Department of Education learning outcomes rooted in Hawaiʻi’s culture and environment. Nā Hopena A‘o or HĀ, is a framework developed to honor the qualities, values and culture of Hawaiʻi. The six outcomes include a strengthened sense of belonging; responsibility; excellence; aloha; total well-being; and Hawaiʻi. Islander Scholars are students who exemplify these characteristics through their actions, whether at school, in community and/or with their families.

In addition to being recognized by their schools, Islander Scholars come together for a memorable and unique three-day Academy at Camp Pālehua, on the southern slopes of the Wai‘anae Range, for self-reflection, to connect to and learn from like-minded peers, share about their communities and ʻohana, and deepen their understanding of their individual and group kuleana as they head into their senior year and beyond.

In summer 2016, sixteen Islander Scholars from five islands made up the first learning cohort. Reflecting on the Academy experience, one of the Scholars said, “I learned more about myself during the Islander Scholars Academy than I did in the entire school year.” Another Scholar said, “This program changed my life and helped me become a better leader.” In early June 2017, twenty-eight new Scholars from five islands will be meeting for the first time as a cohort at Camp Pālehua. The 2017 Scholars will connect through their own Academy experience and will also be part of a multi-year Scholars group, as we bring together the current and past Scholars at a portion of the Academy to maintain the connection and grow a unique network.

We expect great things from Islander Scholars and intend this program to perpetuate island values powerfully via Hawaiʻi’s young adults for a long time to come. By the time this year’s cohort turns 40, there could be roughly 1,500 people who have accepted the kuleana of being an Islander Scholar—leaders and role models in their home communities and beyond for generations to come.

As the noted academic achievers in their schools, many of Hawaiʻi’s valedictorians will be invited to share speeches at their commencement ceremonies, sending classmates off on their individual journeys. We hope that one day, at graduation ceremonies across our islands, it will be the Islander Scholars who stand before teachers and peers and inspire them to be their best.

Josh Levinson is with Islander Institute, a civic enterprise that works with community-based organizations, large institutions, and individuals who are committed to make Hawai‘i better by focusing on core island values like building strong communities, caring for our land, honoring traditions, and living a life of responsibility and aloha. For more information about Islander Institute, visit

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