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‘This is my way of giving back’

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For Debra Prentice, giving back to the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa during one of the most challenging years in recent memory is testament to her lifelong interest in anthropology, her commitment to academic research and a friendship standing the test of time.

She and her husband recently established the Debra and Arlen Prentice Research Fund for Pacific Island Archaeology and Anthropology. Housed at the UH Foundation, the fund supports research currently conducted by UH Mānoa Anthropology Professor Patrick Kirch — a longtime friend of the Prentices. Their generous gift will provide support for a graduate research assistant and discretionary expenses so Kirch may concentrate fully on research for the next five years.

Debra was a graduate student at UH Mānoa in the late 1970s when she met Kirch, who had just returned to Honolulu from research work in Tonga. While Debra’s research interest was Polynesian societies, Kirch focused on historical anthropology, particularly archaeological excavation in the Pacific Islands.

Kirch, who was born and raised in Mānoa Valley, continued his work as a historical anthropologist and became one of the most respected in his field. His accolades are numerous and his research is prolific. Kirch’s career spanned many decades, from his apprenticeship at Bishop Museum, undergraduate degree at the University of Pennsylvania, master’s and doctorate degrees from Yale University, to a longtime teaching career at the University of California, Berkeley. In 2019, he returned to the islands and joined the anthropology faculty as a professor in the College of Social Sciences.

Through it all, Debra’s appreciation and respect for Kirch’s research continued. “Although I left the field of anthropology in the late ’80s and moved into the business world, I continue to follow Pat’s work,” says Debra. “I am particularly fascinated by his holistic approach, blending oral traditions with the archaeological record.”

Kirch and his colleagues originally studied Hālawa Valley on Moloka‘i in 1969 to understand settlement patterns and ecological change, two new perspectives at the time, says Debra: “It looms large in Hawaiian prehistory as one of the earliest settlements in the islands. Pat’s research today allows him to continue unraveling the story, using new techniques and knowledge gained over decades of study.”

She continues, “Pat’s work is important. I firmly believe that in order to move forward and solve some of our challenges in today’s complex world, we need to understand our history, to know where we came from and how we got here. Prehistory can teach us so much.”

The Prentices, who now live in Montana, established the research fund at a crucial time when university funding is uncertain and scarce. “I fully understand how difficult it is to secure funding,” says Debra. “I couldn’t have continued my education and doctoral research without graduate fellowships at UH Mānoa. This is my way of giving back.”