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UWI - A Personal Reflection

Galicia Blackman - Lecturer SALCC



UWI- A Personal Reflection   

When I first attended the UWI it was really because that was norm of the day in my environment: you go to Secondary School, followed by Sir Arthur Lewis Community College and then you go to University. Pursuing higher education was the normal run of the mill, not necessarily a means to an end. For me, education was simply the gratifying experience of being in an academic institution and being exposed to novelties on a daily basis. I write from the privilege of being from a family of educators and the bias of someone who likes being at school and sees the classroom experience as the opportunity to constantly discover new wonders. The pleasure of academic accomplishment was not necessarily the prospect of becoming qualified to get that ‘dream’ job with a lucrative income. The pleasure was actually from engaging with peers who shared similar interests and lecturers who spent most of their adult lives immersed in material which I was eager to absorb. I still get that sense of excitement when I attend conferences and I am fortunate to listen to engaging speakers present some fascinating new dimension of academia.

However, on becoming an educator I had to recognize that in my classrooms were students with mixed abilities and interests.  Not all my students shared my perspective of the school experience. I had to take off my rose-tinted view of school and accept that some are simply not able to see education as a pleasure. Many students’ circumstances drive them to perceive education merely as a means to an end. I believe that can be a useful approach to academic motivation but I am skewed otherwise. In spite of ‘circumstances’ if education is experienced as pleasure alongside hard work then we are more likely to produce successful students, workers and active participants in society. The UWI experience reinforces that balance by facilitating learning and equipping students to be sound participants in social development.

My first UWI experience was fantastic, enjoyable, and life-altering. I had often been vociferously advised: get your second degree from another university. There were many sensible reasons for that advice but I barely remember these reasons because the material I had been exposed to in my undergraduate years made me realize that the University of the West Indies offered me an experience that I wanted to immerse myself in further. Is that not the marker of a quality university experience? To stimulate your intellect, tickle your cerebral processes and make you wonder about the Universe.

I cannot deny the lure of the European and North American university experience. That’s what undergraduate work does to you. You begin to think of possibilities never considered before.  You begin to understand the world around you a bit more.  You begin to realize how little you really know and suddenly you want to discover everything. You crave more of the academic experience. For me the West Indian experience (and I use that to refer to the Anglophone Caribbean experience) was a strong tug on my intellectual and emotional leanings and that trumped the attraction of the European experience.

I did my research. The world has become small enough to know what the European and North American universities offer. I knew exactly what academic experience I was looking for. Certainly a big part of the decision was that I wanted to be in a Caribbean cultural milieu. The undergraduate experience of interacting with Jamaicans, Vincentians, Dominicans, Antiguans, Trinidadians, and Barbadians was exactly what I was looking for. One might think that it is limiting to stay geographically close to home. On the contrary the cultural callaloo was as foreign as it was familiar. That paradox of the UWI experience is that which is so fascinating and enjoyable.

The idea that all to be learnt is geographically located in some metropolis far, far away is becoming antiquated with technology which puts everyone in such close proximity. Our Caribbean neighbours are equally valid as the intellectual experiences which can enrich us. I was fortunate not to privilege the view that ‘overs’ is the best place to receive an education. I was pleased with my decision to immerse myself in the Caribbean UWI experience for the first and second time around.

So for prospective students wondering: ‘where can I go?’ and for parents wondering ‘where should I invest, for my child’s future?’ - I say ‘UWI’, for the Caribbean Intellectual Advantage, the Economic Advantage and the Caribbean Social Experience Advantage.


UWI - The Caribbean Intellectual Advantage

Just when I thought that undergraduate studies had exposed me to the intellectual giants of the Caribbean: Walter Rodney, Eric Wiliams, CLR James, all perched on several branches of academia; V S Naipaul, Wilson Harris, Jean Rhys on yet another set of branches and closer to home, the Walcott brothers, Harold Simmons and contemporary Kendel Hippolyte, all shaking leaves of provocative contemplation-my reading requirements for post-graduate studies made me realize the volumes of discourse just waiting to be engaged and applied to contemporary Caribbean experience.

The perk of graduate research and the privilege of having access to the UWI Special Collections Library was one of the most rewarding features of the experience. Browsing the store-house of research I saw that there are solutions to all kinds of social problems.There are all kinds of research findings which have already worked out many of the issues we publically discuss over and over. It is time for academics to reassert their merit and their moral responsibility. Graduating from UWI should not mean the close of a period of study but the beginning of nation building. Academics, graduates, should not study just for the sake of ingesting knowledge but with a spark of faith that the quality of life can in some way be enhanced.

When one peruses shelves of data traversing different spaces and eras and then one discovers the discourse of thinkers like Aimé Césaire and Edouard Glissant from our neighbouring Martinique, Stuart Hall from Jamaica, Paget Henry of Antigua (to name just a few) the question becomes: why don’t we know more about what our neighbours have to say? I became grateful for the UWI experience which allowed me to be exposed to international discourse, while ensuring I was well aware of what our Caribbean thinkers had contributed to that discourse.  I had certainly not anticipated the sense of social responsibility that came with that exposure. When one converses with giants, one dismisses any Lilliputian syndrome which stunts growth.


UWI -The Economic Advantage

When I weighed the financial considerations of attending the UWI versus other US/UK possibilities, I considered the fact that the UWI has the technology and means to expose one to the most current international journals and discussions.  A student can have access to the very same reputable journals which UK and US students are reading. Certainly the environments are remarkably different across international campuses of various universities. However, I wanted to explore material related to Caribbean life. Why should I invest in a degree which would cost more than what I would invest in UWI when a UWI degree is equally prestigious as said other ‘expensive’ universities?

When I heard stories of UK/US graduates whose loans for undergraduate degrees approximated a first mortgage, I wondered: what is the point of pursuing an education for enhanced quality of life, only to cripple oneself financially? I speak of course of UK/US degrees equivalent to UWI offerings.  I decided that I did not want what is supposed to be an enriching experience (intellectually and literally) to be a ‘get in and get out’ education situation.  A University experience ought to allow for complete immersion, with some financial breathing space to be able to purchase that rare text, or attend a one of a kind conference, or fraternise with colleagues building connections which open untold career possibilities.

A student loan is a good tax deduction but one doesn’t want to be paying off loans long into efforts toward building careers, having a family or easing ones way into retirement.


UWI-The Caribbean Social Experience Advantage

Of course university is about multiple kinds of education.  It is as much an education in social interaction as it is in financial responsibility. The financial advantage of choosing UWI – of having more dollars to enjoy oneself socially is not a going to translate into a credit on a transcript and may very well put some credits in jeopardy.   But that is part of the experience of maturing which is arguably better served in a zone closer to home. The callalou of music, foods and hospitality traditions across the archipelago makes choosing UWI an exciting mix of comfort zones and novelties.

I understand the desire to pursue a University experience which is as far away from home as possible. The glitz and glam of sorority/fraternity lives in alternative traditions.  The allure as depicted by mainstream television and the narrowing of cultural boundaries in some international institutions, all make for very attractive social experiences.  I admit that I was once very seduced by the European images of sophisticated university traditions. The first university campus I visited as an impressionable teenager was the prestigious Cambridge campus in the UK and the ambiance did everything to make one crave community there.

However, the more I became exposed to Caribbean thinkers, the more the cerebral navel string beckoned me. UWI is close to home and feels like home, but eclectic enough to make you realize you are island hopping whether on the pages of a text or in the classroom with a range of accents. The beautiful paradox of the UWI social experience is that one comes to realize what makes one St. Lucian and distinctive from other islands while at the same time feeling a profound kinship with the other islanders. Call it creole affinity, syncretistic relationships, hybridity across time and space; I call it homogenous heterogeneity – diversity across the archipelago, which is united by a shared history and similar landscapes.

Selecting a university is a very personal experience and scholarships change the dynamics a bit. However, if one considers the aforementioned factors, UWI emerges as a thoroughly superior choice.

Earl Lovelace, novelist, philosopher, Caribbeanist reminds us that:

Education must give the young confidence in themselves and our community by giving us the tools to affirm ourselves, honour our parents, criticise our community and create for our welfare and delight. The education we give our young must not place them on the cultural defensive but give them the confidence to challenge and venture and create. And they can only have that education if it is rooted in a cultural and religious and philosophical security.

Funso Aiyejina (ed.), Earl Lovelace Growing in the Dark  (Lexicon: 2003) 52.

I believe the University of the West Indies offers that kind of necessary education and security which facilitates learning. The UWI is keenly conscious that throughout the Caribbean we are still in the process of nation building. The UWI experience prepares us for these challenges, regionally and internationally. Lovelace’s words inadvertently behove us UWI graduates, all of us, whether we hustled through UWI or sailed through comfortably, whether we have had full time campus experience or open campus learning, whether we have attained certificate, diploma or degree recognition to challenge and venture and create.

Galicia Blackman is an English Literature Lecturer at SALCC.  She pursued her undergraduate studies in English Literature at the St. Augustine Campus of the University of the West Indies. Following that she taught at the George Charles Secondary School and re-committed to the teaching profession by attaining Trained Teacher status. She returned to the St. Augustine Campus to read for a Masters of Philosophy in English Literature. She then taught at St Mary’s College before joining SALCC. She has won three awards in the M&CFine Arts Awards Competition: 1995 for poetry; 1996 and 1997 for prose. She believes that parents and guardians need to be encouraged to actively support students in habitual reading and that regular DEAR (Drop Everything And Read) campaigns would contribute to alert, critically thinking, well-rounded students.