June typically sports one of the most in-demand assignments for UNLV's Office of Undergraduate Admissions: the university's annual — and only — off-campus new student orientation at Moanalua Middle School in Honolulu.
As with everything else, 2020 had other plans.
With strong enrollments from Hawaii — about 170 students and their families — and an ocean between locales, UNLV typically sends a team of admissions, financial aid, campus life, and housing and residential life to ready the students for a smooth fall enrollment. Another 20 members of the student-run ’Ewalu Club get involved with orientation too.
This year the all-day, in-person affair was condensed down to multiple WebEx sessions for both students and family members, but that didn't dilute the university's commitment to actively recruiting students from the Ninth Island.
"I miss that interaction to finally see that cluster come in, but everything was pretty positive," said admissions counselor Woody Hoshibata, who leads Hawaii recruitment. "I think it was the parent session that really stood out. I think we did a good job of informing parents and settling down those nerves."
It was a challenging turnaround for admissions staff to reorganize the event around virtual sessions. In-person classes were suspended in mid-March, but a formal decision to do the orientation remotely instead of in Hawaii wasn't made until late April.
Some positive changes have come out of a difficult situation, though. Carlee Todd, associate director for new student orientation and transition programs had already been working to enhance the digital components for orientation, and had the opportunity to test them in the June program.
In particular, using virtual tools to connect small cohorts of incoming students with their student orientation leaders was a hit, and it's something Todd sees a prominent role for moving forward.
"Instead of connecting just once on orientation day, orientation leaders are regularly reaching out to students throughout the summer," she said. "They are very active on social media, calling on students to engage with them. They post things like office hours every week where students can just jump onto WebEx, ask some questions, and connect with them. They host those virtual meetups with every orientation."
Despite the unusual circumstance, the orientation was a chance for UNLV to connect with a group of incoming students that occupy a unique place on campus — and in Las Vegas.
The California opens the door
The close relationship between the university and Hawaiian residents can trace a direct line back to casino developer Sam Boyd and his efforts to market the California Hotel to Hawaiian tourists, starting in the 1970s.
With its generous package deals, the California Hotel became a beacon to Hawaiians vacationing in Las Vegas, so much so that the city soon earned its “Ninth Island” nickname. That, in turn, helped UNLV become the institution with the largest number of Hawaiian students outside the Aloha State.
Barb Roberts, director of undergraduate recruitment, said, “Students realize the value of the university being here, and their families are already comfortable with them coming here — and that is very different. Hawaiians come to Vegas as families. In Texas, in Chicago, in Seattle, they're not traveling to Vegas on the family vacation.”
That familial, well, familiarity has helped the university plant roots across the Pacific. UNLV held its first orientation in Honolulu in 2010 with about 30 students. As recruiting efforts have ramped up over the last decade, so too have the numbers of graduates from Hawaii who have helped spread the word.
Testimony from the mainland
One of those alumni is Hoshibata. He didn’t want a school with a plethora of his Hawaiian classmates when he was graduating high school. So he initially chose the Northern Arizona University.
When he came to the mainland, Hoshibata and his mother flew first to Las Vegas and spent the night here before driving to Flagstaff. His mom remarked that she would have worried about him clubbing too much if he’d chosen UNLV.
A year later he transferred to UNLV.
“I didn’t know what a small college town was,” Hoshibata said of Flagstaff. “It was tough to transition without any support. That’s what I found here, and that's what kind of grounded me here. In the dorms, we're far away from home. You have to find comfort from one another.”
Students bonded over things like food — Maryland Parkway’s Aloha Kitchen is a welcome respite — and at the many cultural festivals around the valley, the specialty food sections of the local store, and the ’Ewalu Club, a student organization for Hawaiian and Polynesian culture.
It all made enough of an impression on Hoshibata that he’s stayed at UNLV, graduating in 2016 with a bachelor’s in human services counseling, followed by a master’s in 2018 before becoming an admissions counselor.
It puts him in a unique position to share concrete experiences with incoming freshmen.
“[Prospective students] see somebody else who left an island and then came out to this big mainland and was able to do something with their life — who was able to navigate that process or was able to be a little secure coming out of UNLV,” Hoshibata said.
Beyond the cultural setting, UNLV offers high value to prospective students from Hawaii. Through the Western Undergraduate Exchange program, those who qualify based on high school grade point average or ACT/SAT score are eligible for tuition at 150 percent of the in-state rate, making UNLV less expensive than even the University of Hawaii at Manoa.
Then there are the job opportunities that Las Vegas affords. UNLV’s highly ranked nursing and hospitality programs are especially popular with Hawaiian students, and Las Vegas offers both a fertile training ground before they return home or a more affordable place to reside should they stay here, as have scores of relatives before them.
“I had never been to Vegas before,” junior Chloe Ponimoi, a nursing student and vice president of the ’Ewalu Club said. “I never visited the campus either, but I have some distant relatives that live here who have been my support system while I've been in school.
“Being from an island, there's only so much that you could do (there). Being in Vegas gave me a chance to explore all of the things that I could do and wanted to do.”
Well, everything except spend the day at the beach, anyway. Unless casino wave pools and imported white sand can compete with the shores of Oahu. And of that, your skepticism might be warranted.