Preparing for Higher Education's New Normal
As the Director for Resource Development at Kapiolani Community (KCC), Brandon Marc Higa finds himself uniquely situated to help the University of Hawaii (UH) weather the financial storm caused by COVID-19. In its simplest terms, Higa’s main responsibilities are to oversee and secure funding for KCC and its partners — anything but simple.
With the sudden onset of the coronavirus, Higa’s responsibilities have increased, but he’s not intimidated by the pressure. Rather, he took the opportunity to advocate for the health and safety of his team, host online seminars and perhaps most impressively, secured $3.7 million in federal aid for his campus. “Our bread and butter is getting funds from the federal government, but this situation was different,” Higa said about the pandemic. “Our chancellor was very quick to take action, and that was great because it empowered the Shared Services team to take action as well,” he said about transitioning his office to telework. “I wanted to make sure my team was going to be safe whether in the office, at home or a blend of both. For us, this is the new normal.”
Higa and his team of UH and RCUH (the Research Corporation for the University of Hawaii) staffers adapted well to the change and are thriving despite the chaotic conditions. “Our work hasn’t stopped, it’s gotten greater. In this current pandemic, the work has continued because we have to stabilize federal dollars for the future,” Higa said about grants that were in-process prior to COVID-19 as well as federal aid from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. “We have been and will continue to rapidly respond to future federal aid packages to alleviate the impacts of the coronavirus to our communities.” The federal aid received is a small part of the nationwide economic recovery assistance that the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) continues to fight for. HGEA, alongside AFSCME, continue to advocate that Congress pass state and local aid to help ensure that essential services continue to be provided in our community.
Keeping up with changing conditions
Before the closure of university classrooms across the state, the funds Higa secured were used for routine campus-related expenses like building maintenance, special programs and student scholarships. “In a very short amount of time, we needed to switch gears and focus a lot of our existing resources on making telework and distance learning available to staff and students,” he said, noting the importance of being mindful to balance remaining resources with timelines for any incoming federal aid. Much of the federal aid KCC is slated to receive will help maintain academic sustainability through the pandemic.
“The first wave of funding from the CARES Act will benefit students through the financial aid process. The second will provide much needed support for expenses incurred responding to the coronavirus, like moving courses online to ensure students may complete the semester,” Higa said. “Additionally, campus facilities and maintenance staff were asked to quickly implement new cleaning protocols to ensure a safe working environment for essential workers who continue to report to work in-person. Many campus budgets simply do not provide for a sudden influx of expenses related to the safety of its physical and digital infrastructures.”
Though Higa is ultimately responsible for the applications of grants, contracts and now, federal aid, he credits his coworkers and campus administration. “My team has a good work ethic,” he said. “These are times where we (my colleagues at other UH campuses) come together and develop creative solutions.” Commending the work of his peers at Leeward and Kauai Community Colleges, he added, “We have to be crafty at getting federal funds and this situation was our perfect moment to act decisively and quickly.”
Higa is equally quick to recognize that much of the work he’s done comes with tremendous support from KCC Chancellor Louise Pagotto who worked expediently to disburse the emergency aid to students through the Student Affairs team. Pagotto’s openness to collaboration and communication have helped guide Higa and his team toward success, which she acknowledged saying, “extramural funding is an essential component of support for higher education endeavors. It allows us to seed new ideas, develop new pedagogy, support innovations in learning, and enrich student experiences. The efforts of Brandon Marc Higa and his team over these years have without a doubt enhanced the quality of our programs through their dedication to finding the grant solicitations, directing them to the right people, assisting in preparing and submitting them, and then helping the principal investigators manage the funds. Now, with an uncertain economic future ahead of us, the ability to secure extramural funds is more important than ever.”
Stepping up and moving forward
On top of his regular workload, the additional stream of COVID-19 information Higa receives keeps him beyond busy, but he handles it well. “Sometimes it feels like information overload,” he said with a laugh. “But I’ve found that staying optimistic and productive has been helpful to get through this.” Shortly after he began teleworking, Higa started hosting Friday Zoom Specials — brief informational sessions for his colleagues via Zoom — but noted that they’re open to anyone who would like to attend.
“The sessions give us something to look forward to as we head into our weekend,” he said. The interactive discussions range from general questions to campus-specific matters like emergency federal funding and Higa goes the extra mile to ensure his colleagues stay well-informed. “The coronavirus doesn’t change our mission. We want to fulfill our commitment to educate and provide top-notch service to other departments as well as students.”
As campuses prepare to open for the fall semester, Higa is proud of what his team and other HGEA members have accomplished. “I’m very grateful for the work that I have at KCC and I admire staff and faculty for trying new things and encouraging us to be flexible and accountable,” he said. “Our members are the unsung heroes of our campus. They work hard and bring institutional knowledge, positivity and innovation to their work which allows us to remain cutting edge as Hawaii’s public university. This is the time when we have to pivot and adjust how we do work to remain successful, and I think we’re all trying to do our part to make sure we get there.”