July 2019

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You want to attend The UWI but you can’t afford it, any of it. You’re a UWI student and the pressures of life have left you anxious or depressed. You’re living away from home for the first time on a hall of residence and you aren’t prepared. You’re thinking about your career options after graduation and you don’t know how to proceed. You’ve been a student most of your life, and nothing much else, but you want more, for yourself and society.

Campus life is a time of incredible opportunity. For many it is also a frightening time of difficulty and need. Thankfully, students at The UWI St Augustine have an incredible resource to support them on their higher education journey - the Division of Student Services and Development (DSSD).

“We are charged with looking after the student life experience,” says Dr Deirdre Charles, Director of DSSD. “We collaborate and link with faculties to ensure that students get a holistic experience of university life and make the best of that experience.”

A huge mandate and, with eight departments and a staff of 125, DSSD strives to meet the needs of every kind of student. The Office of the Director focuses on the Division’s strategic direction and is only responsible for the First Year Experience (FYE), UWI’s massive student orientation initiative.

The other seven departments are Career, Co-Curricular Development and Community Engagement; Financial Advisory Services (which deals with scholarships, bursaries, other financial support and advice); Students Activities/Facilities and Commuting Students; Student Life and Development (including services for students with disabilities); Student Accommodation; Counselling and Psychological Services (CAPS); and the Office of the Guild of Students (headquarters for student government).

Each department offers a host of services and programmes. FYE alone has 21 programmes. “Touch each student once”, a phrase coined by DSSD Manager Kathy-Ann Lewis, exemplifies DSSD’s vision. Students thinking about their future careers are touched by programmes like World of Work. Those looking for fun and enriching campus life activities can be touched by Miss UWIverse, and many others. Those with emotional trauma receive the touch of counselling and therapy sessions, and on and on.

Considering the comprehensive purview of her division, it would not be unreasonable to expect Dr Charles to be a remote administrator, operating in her office and in meetings. The students tell you differently. She is a familiar presence in their lives. In fact, her approach is remarkably personal.

“For us at DSSD, we are humans first,” she says. “We have to be passionate and we have to feel our purpose. I come from a small island, Saint Lucia. Leaving Saint Lucia and going to study abroad for all my degrees showed me the importance of having that kind of support. It showed me the importance of having empathy for somebody who is coming into a new culture. You may be local and from deep South but when you come to our space, you have to feel like you have landed home. You have to feel that you have made the right decision to become part of our higher education population.”

Time and time again, that personal aspect has been most rewarding for the staff of DSSD. Dr Charles has several stories of the division’s intervention in the lives of students that made a profound positive impact. She recounts the story of a brilliant young medical student from Dominica who lost her brother to cancer at an early age and then her older sister to the disease. Through her own strength and determination, with support from DSSD, she went on to achieve First Class Honours.

Another student who grew up an orphan in a Children’s Home, made it to UWI, but found herself without a proper place to live and study. DSSD intervened and found her a place on one of the halls of residence where she was able to successfully complete her degree in medical sciences.

A third student lived with his brother in a shack in the woods after the deaths of their parents. He wanted to come to UWI to study engineering but he couldn’t afford it. DSSD stepped in again and helped him achieve his engineering degree. Today he does scale modelling of homes. His career is taking off.

“We have these courageous stories,” Dr Charles exclaims. “We tend to forget because there are so many students and so many stories. Years later you may be out and a student will walk up to you and remind you. They might say something like ‘what UWI did for me then made a big difference in my life’. For me, that’s priceless.”

In recounting these stories, the DSSD Director is quick to point out the role of the students themselves, the determination they show in their particular circumstances. The greatest support DSSD can give a student is helping them achieve personal development.

She goes on, “higher education should not just be about getting a degree that says I am excellent in some field of work or study. It is about becoming well-rounded and ready to take on the next phase of my life. We know the students are bright but we want the other aspects of development. We want them to be able to organise and problem-solve. We want them to volunteer. We want them to understand the importance of being in a group and staying in a group when the dynamics of the group aren’t functioning properly. We want to create leaders.”

Apart from the intrinsic benefits of personal development, this approach gives graduates an advantage in their post-university lives. Dr Charles says employers reach out to the campus to tell them they don’t necessarily want a first class honours student. They want a “well-rounded student”.

The DSSD Director stresses that students see and use their time at university for their holistic growth. The long-term benefits are enormous:

“You may not see the importance of it now but, trust me, it is so invaluable. Take advantage of this opportunity that you have been given. Once you come into a higher education space, say to yourself, ‘I am here to develop the whole of me’.”