Stop Bringing Nonresident Students to Hawaiʻi During a Pandemic

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On August 7, 2020, Business Insider published an article entitled “2 Princeton grads just bought out hotels in Hawaii and Arkansas and are betting on college students paying them $15,000 to study in a ‘bubble’”. It stated that cofounders Adam Bragg and Lane Russell launched “The U Experience” in which 150 students will pay to be hosted at the Park Shore Waikīkī hotel for the duration of their online Fall semesters. On August 8, 2020, we were made aware of a separate project similar to “The U Experience,” named “A Semester At the Sea.” This Maui project intends to begin hosting students at the Kāʻanapali Ocean Inn on September 1, 2020. Both companies promise to provide their students with meal plans, exercise facilities, mental health services, complimentary WiFi, laundry services, off-campus excursions, etc. According to the previously mentioned Business Insider article, most students who have already applied to “The U Experience” are from California and New York.


These plans to allow 150+ students, mostly from the continental U.S., to relocate to Hawaiʻi during a global pandemic are extremely concerning to the Kānaka Maoli and other current and former Hawaiʻi residents and locals for several reasons: 


Both programs are scheduled to open to students this coming Fall 2020, yet the public was made aware of these plans only recently. The lack of PR and transparency around these projects is concerning and leaves community members with unanswered questions. The “A Semester At the Sea” website does not clearly state who is directly involved in the planning and coordination of this project. Similarly, “The U Experience” has yet to address the concerns voiced by many in the local community. They have gone as far as blocking and deleting comments on social media accounts. This short notice leaves those of us on Oʻahu and Maui with little to no time to provide feedback.


COVID-19 numbers continue to rise across Hawaiʻi, with an estimated 3,346 cases since the start of the pandemic. Today, August 8, is the third consecutive day that Hawaiʻi’s death toll from the virus has grown and there were approximately 231 new cases diagnosed, the majority of which are on Oʻahu. In the event that the students who arrive to enter these programs test positive for COVID-19, the already overcrowded medical facilities and the front-line workers on Oʻahu and Maui will be put at an even greater risk. Most of these students were stated to reside in California and New York, two areas with some of the highest rates of COVID-19, and we cannot allow possible exposure to compromise the health and safety of our vulnerable communities.


Students on Oʻahu from Pre-K through High School were notified that starting on August 17th, the first four weeks after their school’s opening are required to be completely distance learning. On other islands the start dates for schools have been delayed to August 17th with similar distance learning requirements. If our students, children, and family members on Oʻahu are required to learn from home for their first four weeks of school, 150+ students from high-risk COVID-19 areas cannot be allowed to vacation at a hotel here in Hawaiʻi. Across Hawaiʻi, most parks, beaches, and other public areas are now restricting access in an attempt to lower COVID-19 numbers. Because of this, the students of the proposed programs will not be able to take part in the advertised off-campus excursions, which run counter to the “bubble” narrative. Nevertheless, these businesses are advertising these paid opportunities to bypass such restrictions and explore the islands while taking their classes online.


These underutilized hotels could offer resources and housing to those in need in Hawaiʻi. They could also be used as isolation housing for those diagnosed with COVID-19 who live in multigenerational homes. This is being completely overlooked by those involved in these projects. Hawaiʻi continues to have some of the highest unemployment rates due to COVID-19 and even more people are at risk of or experiencing houselessness and food insecurity than before. Native Hawaiians and other BIPOC, especially those of the LGBTQ+ and disabled communities, make up more than half of Hawaiʻi’s houseless population, yet are the least served by government-funded programs and organizations. Again, these bought out hotels could be repurposed into safe and stable havens for those in Hawaiʻi who desperately need housing and resources, yet these projects disregard these issues, and instead cater to students desperate for an in-person, on-campus vacation experience.


“The U Experience” and “A Semester At the Sea'' perpetuate colonial violence and Native Hawaiians’ displacement from their ancestral homelands. Colonization and gentrification have priced Native Hawaiians and locals out of Hawaiʻi and these proposed programs exacerbate the issue. Native Hawaiians have already experienced a cultural genocide and had their population decimated by introduced disease, and these plans disregard that history and current vulnerability of Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders due to COVID-19. 


Unlike most Hawaiʻi DOE public K-12 schools, the University of Hawaiʻi Mānoa and Hawaiʻi Pacific University systems are enabling COVID-19 exposure and spread by bringing outside students to the islands. These local institutions are opting for hybrid-style classes over an entirely online curriculum which entitles students to go to campus. This could be contributing to the dramatic increase in case numbers. “The U Experience” and “A Semester At the Sea” will only add to this problem and could result in substantial harm.


Plans like these should never have been approved in the first place. We are appalled by the insensitivity, ignorance, and irresponsibility and suggest that all resources and housing that would be utilized by “The U Experience” and “A Semester At the Sea” be redirected to house and support those most in need. Local organizations are already repurposing underutilized resources to increase their capacity to shelter vulnerable families and could help more of the community with additional facilities. Instead of accommodating an incoming population of nonresidents, we need creative solutions to address community vulnerabilities and move us on the path towards recovery and resilience. These requests will also be directed to any future hotels, organizations, or individuals who propose similar plans on Oʻahu, Maui, or any other Hawaiian Island. 


Any corrections, added input, and additional information received will be updated in this petition. As information regarding “The U Experience” and “A Semester at the Sea” is new, corrections and edits to proposed plans, and to those who will be receiving this petition, may need to be made and updated based on input received from community members.


Contact Information for Petition Creator - Lexi Figueroa 

@lexiif on Instagram


List of information regarding both projects and individuals who’re involved- https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1-lRwQrkUmuf592G9W4iU4F5r0jcHx3JPGL5J6q-Vnvk/edit