Education in the islands

You can’t get there from here.

But we’re working to change that.

by Glen Herbert

Often the barriers to education to students in the Caribbean are surprising to people who haven’t experienced them first hand. In part that’s because the distances—temporal, geographic—can be deceptive. The Grenadines seem—culturally, on a map—so close to us. And they are. They, like Canada, are part of the Commonwealth, and the Queen is on their currency, too. They speak English as a first language, they’re in our hemisphere, and are as far from Canada’s borders as Vancouver is from Montreal. The US, of course, is closer still—Bequia to Miami is the roughly same distance as that from Miami and New York.

As such, it’s easy to imagine that they would have ready access to the same academic resources and institutions as Canadians, Americans, or anyone throughout the English-speaking world. But they don’t. Academically, they’re often heartbreakingly isolated, something that was brought home recently when a young woman approached us for support. She had received a full scholarship to the University of Texas, Rio Grande Valley. Scouted as an elite athlete, it covered room, board, and tuition. A full ticket. Given her success athletically to date, with the right coaching it’s all but guaranteed that she’d represent SVG at international competitions, including the Commonwealth Games and the Olympics. She’s that good. Her academic record is strong, as is her drive to succeed.

But … one more thing …

The one expense not covered by the scholarship was travel, which is why she approached us. She also hadn’t yet secured a visa to study in the US. For Canadian students, getting that visa would be a slog through some paperwork and red tape, but otherwise more of a bother than anything else.

For her, and all students in SVG, it’s a very different story. It means a number of trips to Barbados—the US doesn’t have consular service in SVG, and neither does Canada—including one to apply, which must be done in person, another a week or two later for an interview. If successful, she’d have to return again to pick up her passport. This is all further complicated by the fact that her high school is not recognized in the US, so she needed to get an academic audit before the university would accept her application to the program. And, of course, she needed a letter of acceptance to a degree program to secure a student visa.

And around it goes. While the offer of financial aid was made at the same time it would be for any student—universities issue them all on the same date, no matter where the student lives—the system wasn’t created with her in mind and, unwittingly, all but excludes her. So, there she sits, with a letter of offer of complete financial aid, to a world-class academic institution, with a world-class athletics program, that she perhaps won’t be able to use. She’s got the talent, the aspirations, certainly the drive. But if she can’t get the visa in time, come September, the offer will lapse.

Bridging the gaps

That’s an extreme case, though serves as a stark reminder of how isolated students in SVG can be, and how exasperating the reasons for that isolation often are. Her story is the tip of a sizeable iceberg, one all too familiar to communities throughout the Caribbean. Access to a quality secondary education may be barred simply by the cost of the daily ferry ride to the mainland. The development of innovative curriculum and delivery may be barred simply because there isn’t federal funding available for classroom supports. Success on matriculation exams is often obviated through lack of tutorial support of a kind that students elsewhere take for granted and have easy access to.

Small things, perhaps, but unchecked, too often aren’t overcome. That’s why we’re developing the kinds of programs we are:

  • The Learning Centre provides, for free, tutoring in preparation for the statewide exams.
  • The scholarship program provides a means of getting them school each day.
  • The Chromebook program, which will be further developed starting this fall, will help deliver current, sound, levelled classroom resources.
  • The Junior Sailing Program offers tutorials and workshops to prepare sailing students for success in their application for RYA accreditation. This opens up job prospects within the tourism industry.
  • STEM initiatives support development of the delivery of the science and technology curricula.

All of those contribute to the overall goal of letting young people know that the world isn’t all that far away, and that their dreams are closer than they think.