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Caribbean juggernaut?

"Caribbean juggernaut?" Continued...

Issue: "The other campaign," Feb. 9, 2008

Julien, 74, taught thousands of engineers during a 35-year career at the University of the West Indies' Trinidad branch and guided the nation's energy and industrial sector for nearly five decades, heading up key government posts, most recently as chairman of the Natural Gas Export Task Force. His latest effort has been to unify several universities in recent years under the University of Trinidad and Tobago, or UTT, at eight campuses around the island country. He believes education is the key to Trinidad's economic and industrial dream.

He expects to hire 60 new faculty members this year and to see enrollment reach 5,000 students in 2008, up 51 percent from the 3,300 students at the university in 2007. He aims for 7,000 students by 2010.

At the tidy O'Meara campus in an industrial park, where Ochoa studied, young people wear dress clothes to school every day, adding structure to a laid-back island environment. Visiting faculty from Cambridge University in England are mentoring local faculty in a curriculum that melds engineering and entrepreneurship.

Ochoa is from a rural area of Trinidad and both his parents-with his mother's ancestors from India and his father's from Africa, they meld the two major island ethnicities-had only a junior-high education. Last year he presented his sustainable business idea at a conference in Tampa and wants to develop the plan and other ideas as he eventually pursues a Ph.D. "In Trinidad, up till now, we have only been taught to be consumers. We haven't been taught to be producers. It's a mindset thing," he says.

His program director is Denise Thompson, who graduated with a Ph.D. from Stanford University and always wanted to bring her knowledge back to the Caribbean, where she might see the greatest impact. Teaching gigs at Tuskegee Institute and other colleges sidetracked her from that mission until now.

Thompson explains the zeal that caused her and her husband to leave academic posts in the United States in order to be part of a startup university here: "For me, helping engineers actively consider how they can intentionally create wealth and do so in ways in which the environment and people are not sacrificed for profit is absolutely exciting."

Thompson opens parties at her house for students and faculty by holding hands and praying. Thompson explains that economic development, higher education, and faith do mix as a new kind of emancipation. Trinidad has a mix of Muslim, Hindu, African, and Christian faiths. Many of the Indian and African citizens of the island are descendants of freed slaves from British colonial sugar cane plantations.

"There are actually several of us persons of faith, working together in these 'secular' fields, convinced that there is no dichotomy between sacred and secular," she said. "And our work with students and in the national interest of the country is part of our faith walk."

Paul David Glader
Paul David Glader

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