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Nature-rich Hawaii seeks to lure international students to 'world's best classroom'

The glow of lava churning within the Halema'uma'u Crater of the volcano Kilauea is seen from the lookout at Jaggar Museum in Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park on Hawaii's Big Island on the evening of Nov. 16, 2017. (Mainichi)

As twilight descends on Kilauea, an active volcano on the island of Hawaii, the orange glow of molten rock churning within the volcano's lava lake gradually grows brighter, tinging the clouds above. Chilled by the wind, visitors on a platform vie for views of this spectacle of nature -- one of the several volcanoes that formed the Hawaiian Islands.

    The rough, rocky terrain around Kilauea, the youngest of five overlapping volcanoes on the Big Island, as the island of Hawaii is familiarly known, is part of a diverse range of local environments that attract planeloads of visitors throughout the year. But while Hawaii is best known as a tourist destination, the natural diversity also happens to turn Hawaii into a living laboratory.

    "There are very few places that have the range of environments we have," points out volcanologist Kenneth Hon, vice chancellor for academic affairs at the University of Hawai'i at Hilo on the Big Island. "We have this beautiful, pristine tropical ocean around us. We also have something like 13 different environmental climate zones, so you can study biology and look at environments across a broad range of climate conditions."

    In addition to having one of the world's most accessible volcanoes and longest running volcanic eruptions at Kilauea, Hawaii has an edge in astronomy research, with some of the world's biggest telescopes including Japan's Subaru telescope on the summit of Mauna Kea -- a massive 4,207-meter volcano with an elevation greater than that of Mount Everest when measured from its base on the ocean floor. Easy access to coral reefs also makes Hawaii an attractive location for marine biology.

    These resources have attracted students and researchers from many countries, creating a diverse student population which in turn reflects the U.S. state's wider cultural diversity.

    Recognizing the value of its international students, the State of Hawaii between Nov. 13 and 17 celebrated International Education Week in the U.S., and Gov. David Ige proclaimed Nov. 16 as the state's International Education Day, calling for celebration of the diversity on the islands.

    Hawaii Gov. David Ige, left, and Joel Weaver, president of the Study Hawai'i Educational Consortium, present a proclamation on International Education Week and International Education Day in Honolulu on Nov. 14, 2017. (Mainichi)

    "Hawaii is one of the most diverse communities on the planet," he said. "We're proud that the state has abundant geologic as well as cultural diversity. ... We welcome students from around the world to enjoy the beauty of our islands and stay for a quality education that will transform their future, whether they choose to return or stay here on our islands and become part of this community."

    The proclamation comes as the state of Hawaii looks to reverse the downward drift in the number of foreign students studying in the United States. Dennis Ling, an administrator in the State of Hawaii's Department of Business, Economic Development & Tourism, attributed this trend to "the perception that the U.S. is not a very safe place to study ... as well as that foreigners are not welcome in the U.S." However, "Hawaii is different," he continued. "We have ranked as one of the top states for being the safest in the U.S. Also, you just have to look at our community to know that foreigners are welcome."

    Members of the Samoan club at the University of Hawai'i at Hilo perform as part of the United Nations Day Celebration at the university during International Education Week, on Nov. 17, 2017. (Mainichi)

    Gov. Ige said Hawaii was focused on assuring students just how different studying in Hawaii would be compared to other locations such as California, especially in fields where it holds the strategic advantage, such as astronomy or ocean and marine studies, or marine biology, where the classroom is the natural environment. "We know that we have more endangered species here in the state than any other location in the world, and that those lead to different kinds of educational opportunities," he said.

    Japanese student Yuko Stender is among those to have taken advantage of this nature-rich learning environment. She came to Hawaii to learn English while studying in Japan, and entered the Hawai'i English Language Program (HELP) at the University of Hawai'i at Manoa. She was supposed to return to her school in Japan after three months, but decided to stay.

    Japanese student Yuko Stender, a Ph.D. candidate in the Coral Reef Ecology Lab at the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology, explains her research during a presentation on Nov. 15, 2017. (Mainichi)

    "I was always interested in the ocean environment, and I wanted to experience other people's culture and language," she recalls. "I decided to drop out of my school in Japan, and continue my undergrad education here in Hawaii." The first thing she did was a scuba diving certification course. Then, after taking part in an underwater survey program, she delved into the study of marine environments, learning about fish and coral. Now a Ph.D. candidate, Stender conducts research in the Coral Reef Ecology Lab at the Hawai'i Institute of Marine Biology, which is part of the University of Hawai'i, using facilities on Coconut Island in Kane'ohe Bay off Oahu.

    "In Japan, you really have to travel further to see those reefs, but in Hawaii, it's right there," Stender points out. "We have a great backyard on the island here where you can jump in and study the system and bring up all the samples of whatever you want to look at and investigate."

    Highlighting such research opportunities, the Study Hawai'i Educational Consortium, which promotes the state as a study destination, has embarked on a 10-year strategic plan to double the number of international students studying in Hawaii by 2026, with 10,000 students in long-term programs and 14,000 students in short-term programs.

    As the No. 1 source of international students, Japan plays an importing part in that plan. Many of these students enter short-term English language programs, looking to improve their language skills either before returning to Japan or extending their studies in Hawaii.

    Students are seen along the University of Hawai'i at Manoa's McCarthy Mall on Nov. 16, 2017. (Mainichi)

    Roger Fong, director of ELS Language Centers Honolulu, says Japanese students form the biggest group of international students at the institution. The school's offices and classrooms are in a historic building of Hawaii Pacific University, just a short walk from Aloha Tower, a prominent landmark in the city of Honolulu. It offers an academic English language program that fulfills the English-language requirement for admission to over 650 universities and colleges in the U.S. Canada, Australia, Europe and other countries. This includes Hawaii Pacific University, which guarantees scholarships for ELS students who matriculate there.

    Aloha Tower is seen near Honolulu Harbor, a short walking distance from Hawaii Pacific University in Honolulu on Nov. 14, 2017. (Mainichi)

    Global Village Hawaii, a nationally and internationally accredited English language school in Honolulu, has a student population that's over 40 percent Japanese. One of them, Masashi Saito, is studying English to complement his tourism major in Japan. He says he chose to study in Hawaii because he felt it was a place with less discrimination than other destinations, and also that it was safe -- a view echoed by many students in Hawaii.

    Waka Marubayashi, a 10th grade student at Mid-Pacific school in Honolulu, which offers education for children from preschool age through to 12th grade, says she came to the school from Japan after her sister attended.

    "The reason why we chose Hawaii is that Hawaii is a really nice place, of course, like with the nature ... but at the same time it's really safe," she says. "And it's also convenient because it's really close from Asia."

    A robot designed by a student at 'Iolani School in Honolulu is seen at the school on Nov. 15, 2017. (Mainichi)

    One area of growth officials see for the market of students arriving from Japan is high school education. At private schools, students often have a wealth of resources at their fingertips. This is evident at 'Iolani School, a college preparatory school in Honolulu, where students have access to university-level labs and even equipment to build their own robots. Students at the school are encouraged to publish their research.

    Hawaii Preparatory Academy, a K-12 preparatory school in Waimea on the Big Island has a partnership with NASA, with the HI-SEAS Mars simulation project, as well as with Stanford and Cornell universities. At the same time, the school embraces the unique culture and environment of Hawaii.

    "In combining the culture of Hawaii, that Aloha spirit, we are creating these students who are going to recognize this is a special place," says Joshua Clark, director of external relations at the school.

    That said, there are still issues to overcome, such as acquiring the funding needed to promote study opportunities in Hawaii.

    "We're trying to get more state-funded support, and that's helping," he said. "But we're also not getting as much support as other states are providing."

    Another issue is the pervading perception among parents that Hawaii is a primarily destination for tourism and relaxation.

    "Families are like, it's Hawaii, my kid's going to sit on the beach all day," Clark says.

    That is where the Study Hawai'i Educational Consortium has been playing an important role, working to inform international students of the study options in Hawaii and letting them know that they are welcome.

    Study Hawai'i President Joel Weaver says that the open-armed spirit of Hawaii, embodied in the Hawaiian phrase "E Komo Mai" (welcome), is part of what makes the islands a good place for international students to study. He stresses that there is much more to the islands than what tourists seek, with the state's myriad resources making it a good place to study and get a degree.

    "Not just for fun in the sun," he says. Though admittedly, that is a welcome bonus.

    (Story and photos by Aaron Baldwin, Staff Writer)

    Palm trees are seen on a beach in Honolulu's resort district early on the morning of Nov. 16, 2017. (Mainichi)


    The cost of education in Hawaii

    International student tuition fees at the University of Hawai'i at Manoa, Hawaii's biggest university, with a 320-acre campus and close to 18,000 students, cost about $33,000 dollars per year for undergraduate students and $37,000 dollars per year for graduate students, and an extra $13,000 for room and board. Scholarships can offset some of this cost.

    The grounds of Kapi'olani Community College are seen on a fine day in Honolulu on Nov. 14, 2017. (Mainichi)

    The school is the part of the University of Hawai'i system with 10 campuses across the Hawaiian Islands -- three universities, and seven two-year community colleges. Tuition at community colleges, where students can acquire certificates and some degrees, is significantly cheaper, and some courses allow students to transfer to universities while retaining the credits that they have already earned. For example the yearly tuition for non-residents at Kapi'olani Community College, which features a strong culinary arts program, is $8,160.

    More information on study options in Hawaii can be found at the official website of the Study Hawai'i Educational Consortium at

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