Dennis Jones is a Jamaican-born international economist, who has lived most of the time in the UK and USA, and latterly in Guinea, west Africa. He moved back to the Caribbean in 2007. This blog contains his observations on life on this small eastern Caribbean island, as well as views on life and issues on a broader landscape, especially the Caribbean and Africa.







**You may contact me by e-mail at livinginbarbados[at]gmail[dot]com**

Friday, May 08, 2009

Taking Your Pride In Your Stride

I am not a great one for celebrating personal educational achievements beyond taking the achievements as their own reward. I guess that comes from an upbringing that stressed working for what you get and taking the results as testimony enough. Passing the 11 plus meant a better choice of schools. Passing O and A levels meant a better choice of higher education or first job after school if university was not desired. Getting a good university degree meant a better choice for even further study or jobs for graduates. The base was well built and from that a good life could be built. My parents, once they had migrated, focused much on making the money they earned go to things that built for them and for me, for the present and for the future. I had much the same experiences with sports: medals and trophies for victories were often as sweet as it got (plus the odd bonus, when I got paid), and the memories of defeats (and the lashing of the coach and fans) were as bitter as they needed to be.

I have to pleasure of spending a few days in Tortola again, with the first cohort of students from the British Virgin Island who have taken the University of the West Indies Executive Masters in Business Administration programme. I have taught on this course in Barbados, Belize and Tortola. Most of the course students are about my age (40s/50s), and all are working while they study. They all have well established careers already, and most have families with a new generation going to school and maybe university. So, to take on new studies, part-time, over three years, is a major challenge. I am very interested, therefore, in the way that they celebrate their achievements.

What was clear as soon as I arrived yesterday for the ceremonies was that celebrate they will. Each student was decked out in fine clothes--the women in white suits, the men in dark ones. The women's hairdos and make up were a show in themselves. The families who were in the auditorium were as wild as at a high school sports days, whooping and whistling, and grabbing cameras to record the moments. The speeches were thankfully short but gladly also very on the mark, especially the keynote remarks, which were about leadership: leaders innovate, managers administrate. But, for me, the first high point was near the end of the ceremonies when the cohort took the stage, and the mikes, and started to sway as the strains of a song came out, and they sang an R. Kelly song, 'The storm is over' (see lyrics), not one of his bump and grind songs but the inspirational strain that he also does well. The final verse tells of the relief after struggle:

The storm is over
(The storm is over now)
And I can see the sunshine
(Somewhere beyond the clouds)
I can feel Heaven, yeah
(Heaven is over me)
Won't you come and set me free

These middle aged students could sing! They had their moment of new glory and they were not going to let it pass. Their Premier was there, and had said kind words, so too was their current Minister of Education. How ironic that one of the students was the former Minister of Education, now trying to make a new career for himself as a consultant. That's leading by example.

Then came the cocktail and banquet in the evening. My instructions had been to dress formally, and I did in black tie and Tuxedo. I felt odd at first during the afternoon ceremonies when I had seen no one dressed the same way, except one man, who I found out was a student's husband. But, local people could go home and change, and I had at least half a dozen other bow-tied men to admire. The women were also in their evening wear, and again, the students stole the show with a display of gowns that was really stunning. Michelle Obama, I think you need to visit Tortola for some tips.

The banquet had a first for me, a female MC, and she told some of the best jokes, mainly about men and women and alluding to things they do. She got the crowd going. She urged the testimonials and the acknowledgement of the lecturers and administrators, and praised the caterers, and wondered if the musicians were really asleep, and so on.

What struck me also, however, was how for this group there seemed to be no limits to the amount of praise they were ready to heap on each other, including each getting a gift for 'achievements' such as 'designated driver'.

What I got most from the ceremonies was a sense of incredible inspiration that comes from personal achievement. I will use one case. A female student had a younger sister, who has no become a judge. She tells how as a child, she watched her sister study all day and night and pass over meals, while saying that she could not study like that; she got as a result a range of minor administrative jobs and began to raise her family. But, she had drive and she helped her children, to the extent that one of her daughters went to the podium, picked up the microphone and belted out a song that would have made one of the talent shows think "we have a winner". Her mother had learned to study, and sacrifice her nights, and now had an MBA, so yes, be proud. She was still not like the sister-judge, but there was no doubting that she had learned the trick with the books.

When I taught this group over a two week period I met some of the most determined people I had ever come across. None struck me as intellectual wizards, but each struck me as honest individuals who wanted to do all they could to take another step upwards. That two of the dozen gained distinctions (at least 11 As and averaging over 70%) does not surprise me. What was surprising was that three of the women became pregnant during the course, and added more burdens to themselves. What was wonderful was to see that UWI has a scheme that allows those new mothers to break from the course and resume seamlessly to complete and graduate.

This group of students is unique in being the pioneers for the study of this course in the BVI. I don't know what any of the gifts were that the cohort gave each other, and I may find out later today, as we spend a day sailing and having lunch. But, I know that they are all gifted and have given us a gift of inspiration to achieve. Most of the students have moved on to new jobs, in both public and private sector, and in some cases started their own business. They were inspired to stay on the island and study more to work to better their small island and its capabilities. They are all excited that, as the economic downturn starts to hit activities in tourism and finance, they have more tools to better weather the storm.

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