To UWI or not UWI? Education at Home vs. Abroad

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Stay home, or head out to greener pastures? This is the question everyone asks when considering the options for tertiary level education.

Invariably, matters such as finances, programme offerings, and family situations play a key role in the final decision, and depending on your life stage, it might be easier study in Trinidad and Tobago or at a foreign institution; or, as some people do, it may be easier to pursue an associate or bachelors degree at home, and then move abroad to pursue a bachelors or masters degree.

One may argue that, regardless of the chosen option, students also get what they put in, and this too can impact the body of knowledge they gain, and the overall quality of their tertiary education experience.

 

‘There was never a time…  when I did not think that one day I would leave my homeland to further my education’

 

There was never a time during my formative years when I did not think that one day I would leave my homeland to further my education. My parents had the opportunity to study abroad, and thus considered it to be a rite of passage, if not an escape route for my sister and I from Trinidad’s mediocre standards.

As a child I remember my father, who was then a lecturer at the University of the West Indies (UWI) St. Augustine Campus, lamenting about the quality of the papers written by his students and the failings of the UWI administration. He insisted that if he had anything to do with it, my sister and I were not going to be educated there.

Meanwhile, my mother had more practical concerns that focused on whether or not we would have an adequate support network, and would be able to pursue larger personal and professional goals. The one thing they both agreed on was that their daughters would have the best education possible.

The lure of American universities’ scholarships (partial and full) and the relatively favourable exchange rate of the US dollar effectively sealed my fate.

Additionally, given the fields of study my sister and I wanted to pursue (communications and music), none of the local educational institutions offered a viable option at the time. Thus at the not so tender age of 20 (most American undergraduates are 17 years old when they start university), I left the shores of Trinidad, destined for New Orleans, LA to pursue a degree in communications studies.

For various reasons, including cost, field of study and allegiance to their family, many of my peers elected to remain in Trinidad to complete their education.

Once on campus, I threw myself into honour classes, which were challenging, but far easier than the A’ Level workload I had already successfully navigated. Unlike the British education system, which I was used to, my peers and I were tested frequently and never expected to regurgitate material that had been learned the previous year. My professors were accessible and always available to answer my questions, but they expected and demanded an equal level of commitment from their students.

 

‘There could be no slacking off’

 

With no parental supervision to make sure I went to class or even opened a book, how well I did was very much a measure of my own discipline and drive. There could be no slacking off as was sometimes the case growing up, because here everything was counted, including attendance and class participation. Showing up and acing the final exam wouldn’t guarantee you an A.

Outside of the classroom there were numerous student organizations to get involved with, and an extended network of West Indians in the surrounding schools that adopted me. By the end of my freshman year I had my own column in the school paper, sat on the boards of two campus organisations, and managed to tackle the sport of cross country running.

In comparison, my friends who had elected to go to UWI frequently rattled off a list of complaints in our conversations. UWI lecturers seemed to take pride in the number of students who failed their courses, they said. I knew from experience that if a critical number of students failed a course, it was the lecturer who would have to answer some tough questions, or be forced to grade on a curve.

Failing multiple students was not a sign of brilliance in the US because the role of a professor was to inspire students to pursue academic excellence. Furthermore, my peers in Trinidad insisted that academic advising was at times non-existent, even unhelpful, and many students wasted valuable time and effort taking classes they didn’t need.

The Student Guild, meanwhile, reflected the corrupt politics and racial divisions of our nation’s politics, while extra-curricular activities tended to the social more than the intellectual. In the US, educational institutions are often the birthplace of youth activism, social responsibility and civic engagement.

 

‘My friends in Trinidad were drinking rum between classes, playing “all-fours” and hitting the clubs for student night every week’

 

My friends in Trinidad were drinking rum between classes, playing “all-fours” and hitting the clubs for student night every week. This is not to say that American youngsters do not flunk out of college because of excessive partying, but most educational institutions that depend on student tuition to survive have an imperative to keep students enrolled and engaged for all four years.

Intellectually I felt constantly challenged and physically I was fitter than I had ever been, but it didn’t take me long to figure out that studying abroad isn’t for everyone.

My decision to study abroad effectively halted the growth of many of the relationships I had been nurturing for years. Admittedly this is something I still struggle with, but my parents raised me to see myself as a citizen of the world, not necessarily of a particular country.

More importantly, my time abroad has given me the ability to see my country and the Caribbean region dispassionately. I would argue that part of the reason our region has struggled to develop is that too many of our leaders and decision makers have never left our shores. They have never experienced First World efficiencies, so how can they be expected to effectively model it? You cannot replicate success unless you’ve first understood the various determinants of it, from history to politics, and, most importantly, culture.

The reality is that there is an opportunity cost to every choice we make in our lives, and studying abroad is no different. Am I saying that studying abroad is the better decision for everyone? Not necessarily, but it was for me.

 

 

Author bio: Dzifa Job is a freelance writer and the voice behind the blog Musings of an Empress. Her writings have appeared in One Love Houston, The Good, The Bad, The Ugly In Sports, The Integrationist Quarterly, and Caribbean Axis. Dzifa is a graduate of Syracuse University, and holds a Bachelors degree in Public Relations from the Newhouse School of Communications. A Trini, living in New York, she spends her downtime writing, training for fitness challenges, and going on adventure vacations.

 

 

Dzifa Job

Dzifa Job is a freelance writer and the voice behind the blog Musings of an Empress (www.dzifajob.wordpress.com). Her writings have appeared in One Love Houston, The Good, The Bad, The Ugly In Sports, The Integrationist Quarterly, and Caribbean Axis. Dzifa is a graduate of Syracuse University, and holds a Bachelors degree in Public Relations from the Newhouse School of Communications. A Trini, living in New York, she spends her downtime writing, training for fitness challenges, and going on adventure vacations.

6 Comments

  1. Simone Dalton

    July 21, 2010 at 6:02 am

    Great article Dzifa and kudos to you for taking full advantage of your opportunity to study abroad. I also had the foreign education experience and found that the local students often did not appreciate the facilities available to them.

    I was also considered a mature student having started my undergrad career “late” and found the fresh-out-of-high-school grads frustrating to be in class with. Maybe I’m being biased, but I think the “do as you’re told” mentality of most Caribbean institutions may have its benefits…at least I knew not to talk in class and had more respect for my profs.

  2. Zindzi

    March 14, 2011 at 4:38 am

    I’m sorry, but I’ve gotta take you to task for several comments:

    “My friends in Trinidad were drinking rum between classes, playing “all-fours” and hitting the clubs for student night every week.”
    I went to school in Montreal, Canada. I have never seen more drinking and slacking off during classtime than I’ve ever seen there. My school had an on-campus bar that never carded until recently and opened at 12pm everyday without fail. I don’t think Trinidad has some kind of cultural monopoly on behaviour like this, and I think there’s a problem with that kind of thinking. I understand your argument but there’s a more intelligent way to bring your point across. Otherwise you risk sounding culturally insensitive and a bit ignorant.

    Second, “Failing multiple students was not a sign of brilliance in the US because the role of a professor was to inspire students to pursue academic excellence.”
    My cousin went to Princeton and did Poli Sci there. He can give you a list of professors whose classes people fight and clamour to get into simply because they are exclusive and difficult to excel in, and because they thus have a high failure rate. Some see it as a sign of merit if you can not only get into a class like that, but if you can survive it and pass/excel. Again, another feature that UWI does not have an exclusive hold over. It’s simply an egomaniac thing, it has nothing to do with the culture.

    ” I would argue that part of the reason our region has struggled to develop is that too many of our leaders and decision makers have never left our shores. They have never experienced First World efficiencies, so how can they be expected to effectively model it?”
    Where are the statistics for this? Many of Trinidad’s leaders pursued degrees in Canada, for ex, and still make poor decisions in Government and with developmental issues. Living abroad does not automatically mean someone takes away the best of another culture when they leave. Many people go abroad and exist in nests, refusing to engage with the culture of the place they’ve moved to. This is not new. They don’t feel comfortable outside of the culture that they’re used to, so they create replicas of home in an attempt to belong, or feel relevant. Yet again, a sweeping statement with no fact behind it.

    These are opinions and I understand this, but perhaps you should position them as such rather than just presenting them as fact. It’s a major disservice to people who left Trinidad to do a Bachelors/Masters/what-have-you for legitimate reasons, not because they had poor opinions of UWI. I’ve heard their horror stories but many brilliant, educated people have passed through there and excelled. My parents are two of them. If you’d like a more interesting angle, perhaps focus on that aspect – overcoming the odds of the environment rather than rattling off reasons for why the environment sucks and it’s not good enough. This does not help instil confidence. I expected more from someone so educated and worldly.

  3. Guyanasugar@gmail.com

    June 18, 2012 at 6:50 pm

    I think ur full of urself-what makes America better than the Caribbean? I have gone to school in Canada and the USA-from what I see it’s what u take out of ur experience at University-I think u r an idiot

  4. NMAB

    June 18, 2012 at 9:46 pm

    As someone who attended undergrad in the USA and Master’s at UWI St. Augustine, I find this article way to generalized. I had an excellent academic experience in both countries (I’m not from Trinidad and Tobago so it’s not like I am biased towards Trinidad either). I experienced quite a bit of student activism at UWI especially as it related to the Guild. In both places there were the students who slacked off and spent their time partying and in both places, I interacted with some of the most brilliant people I have ever met so it’s not a UWI versus abroad thing. People are people wherever you go and you will find all kinds of people in all places.

    • Glab

      April 7, 2015 at 2:21 am

      @NWAB

      May I please ask you some questions about your experience at UWI via email? I did my undergrad in the US and am planning to attend UWI for my master’s degree..
      I would really appreciate your feedback! Thank you.

  5. hamhead

    May 6, 2015 at 10:21 pm

    I’m a U.S. college student who’s currently studying abroad @ UWI St. Augustine and this article really solidified some of the academic culture shock I’ve been experiencing. Thank you for this.

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