Off to school

by Glen Herbert

Lauriel Stowe wants to be a volcanologist. “We had a geography class,” she says, recalling some years ago, “and [the teacher] was talking about plate tectonics, and I really found the topic interesting.” She did some of her own research and, among other things, learned that there is only one working volcanologist in St. Vincent and the Grenadines. “I was thinking about what would happen if this person was to get old and can’t do the work anymore? And I thought that’s what I’d like to do.”

The volcanologist monitors La Soufrière, an active volcano that is also the highest point on St. Vincent. It dominates much of the skyline. The history of its eruptions is as good an example of the value of volcanology as you could hope to find: in 1902 it erupted killing 1680 people. When it erupted in 1979 there were no casualties, thanks entirely to the advanced warning offered by those tasked with monitoring it.

Lauriel’s desire to learn about her world, to ask questions, and to think locally with a mind to ongoing service is why she was such a good candidate for the scholarship program. In addition to ferry costs, the scholarships provide school uniforms, shoes and books, lunches, and ground transportation on the mainland. Little things, perhaps, though they make a world of difference in the lives of the students. The scholarships remove the barriers between them and their academic aspirations. While there are two secondary schools on Bequia, there are more course options and more academic resources in schools on St. Vincent. For some students those options—including physics, chemistry, and better-equipped biology labs—are essential to successful applications to post-secondary programs.

Such is the case for Lauriel, who attends St. Joseph Convent, known as one of the best schools in the country. “It’s a good school,” she says. Each day she meets the ferry in Port Elizabeth. The hour-long passage takes her past schools of dolphin, terns, and, at certain times of year, schools of flying fish. “This one time we saw a whale, and it was really up close,” she says. I ask if we’ll see flying fish. “We’d have to be really lucky. I don’t know if it’s because of climate change, but we rarely see them anymore.” (We were lucky that day, actually, seeing schools of fish taking flight in the wake around the boat to flee the birds diving from above.) As the boat lists, I ask if this is a rough day. “It’s not that rough because you can still walk around pretty easily.” When it’s rough, you can’t.

St. Joseph is in Kingstown, the nation’s capital. As such, Lauriel’s journey each day takes her seemingly the entire length and breadth of the country. While Bequia can feel at a remove, once in Kingstown she walks past all of the key institutions in the nation, including parliament, the prime minister’s office, the national banks, the supreme court, even a sizeable prison, its perimeter girded with concertina wire. The city has a population more than three times that of Bequia and is home to the largest customs port in the country, its main commercial centre. There’s a lot of bustle, and the colonial history is evident, too, in historic stone buildings blackening beneath a patina of lichen. (Also nearby is the botanical garden. Founded in the 18th century, it includes a breadfruit tree that is a direct descendant of the one William Bligh planted there in 1793.)

She typically doesn’t get back to Bequia until 7pm, so it makes for a long day. Still, Lauriel knows that it’s the right thing for her, and is thankful for the opportunity. Recipients of the scholarships give back by providing academic support to students of the Learning Center. As such, the scholarships have a significant and lasting effect on the development of educational opportunities on the island through improving delivery of the curriculum, encouraging mentorship, and promoting the value of academic achievement. Lauriel, nearly 50 other students, and the culture as a whole all benefit from the program. “It helps everyone to bring out themselves,” she says of the school she attends and, by inference, the scholarship that helps get her there. “It’s important.” She’s right. It is.