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Program brings people from around the world together

September 17, 2008

Exchange program enriches campus living and learning

Six years ago, Candice Hughes ’08 realized that, despite her ambition, college just wasn’t in the cards. As consolation, the Trinidad and Tobago native dreamed of figuring out a way to go back to school part-time in a few years. Her opportunity emerged just two years later with the advent of a unique exchange program, forged between PLU and the Trinidadian government.

For more than a decade, PLU has been sending students for a semester of study on the Caribbean island nation, located just off the coast of Venezuela. In 2004, the program sought three Trinidadian students to study alongside PLU students in PLU-designed courses and at the University of the West Indies.

“Our students were going down there, having a rich experience and gaining so much, but we weren’t really giving back to Trinidad,” explained English professor Barbara Temple-Thurston, founder and director of the program. “I thought it would be lovely if we could do a real exchange.”

And thus, a “real” exchange was implemented. The Trinidadian students would live with the PLU students, take courses alongside them, be immersed in the cultural life of the islands and complete a service-learning project. At the semester’s conclusion, the most promising student would receive a four-year scholarship to PLU, funded jointly by PLU and Trinidad’s Ministry of Community Development, Culture and Gender Affairs.

Hughes jumped at the chance.

“I learned about the program and I was like, ‘Are you kidding me?’” she said in her Caribbean-accented English. “It was a complete, complete blessing.”

To be accepted, local students must have excellent grades, a successful interview with PLU faculty and ministry representatives, and be involved in their country’s “Prime Minister’s Best Village Trophy Competition,” a year-round program that highlights the traditional cultures, including music, food, dance, drama and sports. It seeks to preserve and build pride in the nation’s diverse traditions, Temple-Thurston explained.

Hughes was part of the first trio accepted to the program. And, after studying alongside PLU students, she was chosen as the first to come to Tacoma to complete her degree.

Hughes marked another milestone for the program this past May, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in geosciences and serving as the senior class speaker.

“I came in as a girl from Trinidad, and I’m leaving as a world citizen,” Hughes said. “The things that I’ve been exposed to, and all the students I’ve met and exchanged ideas with have opened up my mind to a whole different way of thinking.”

At PLU, Hughes immersed herself in campus life. She participated in theater and Dance Ensemble, held leadership roles in the Diversity Center and ASPLU, and spearheaded the first campus Caribbean Carnival in February 2006. The now-annual event showcases the dance, music and history of Trinidad and Tobago, provides an outlet for the program’s participants to demonstrate what they learned, and exposes the students who don’t study away to another culture, she explained. To top it all off, Hughes even fit in a semester studying environmental issues in Botswana.

“We don’t walk around thinking PLU’s got diversity. We see a lot of the same people, but we are diverse, in more ways than one,” she said.

To make her point, she cites the active international student community, the breadth of academic disciplines the university offers and the varied backgrounds of its students, faculty and staff. In four years at PLU, she’s broadened her understanding of the world and her place in it.

“It’s a two-way street,” she explained. “It’s not just that we’ve been coming and giving PLU all this diversity. We have been gaining so much, too.”

Her transformation from “a girl from Trinidad” to a “world citizen” started that first semester, when she lived and learned alongside PLU students in her native land. She gladly served as a resource for the PLU students, but she also learned a great deal about her culture.

Culture is a key theme of the program. Due largely to its colonial past, Trinidad and Tobago are home to a rich mix of religions and ethnicities, from African and East Indian to Chinese, Syrian and Portuguese. Trinidadians express great pride in their diversity through a variety of festivals. The PLU program is designed to explain the deeper historical roots that anchor these festivals, Temple-Thurston said.

According to Hughes, the knowledge she gained in the program makes her a better Trinidadian and a better ambassador for her country.

Currently, there are six Trinidadian students studying on the PLU campus as part of this program. Through their work in campus organizations and clubs – and by simply living in the residence halls and attending class – they are having a profound effect on the PLU campus.

“Everybody knows about them. Who ever thought about Trinidad and Tobago before?” Temple-Thurston asked. “The program has heightened awareness of our Caribbean neighbors and the issues we face in a globalized world. Now almost any PLU student knows where Trinidad and Tobago is, they know somebody from it or they know something about the culture. It’s remarkable.”

The pressure of being the first student supported by the joint scholarship was high. But Hughes rose to the challenge, building a strong foundation and placing high expectations on the subsequent scholarship winners.

Listening to the 25-year-old speak today, she exudes self-confidence. She’s poised, enthusiastic and excited to return to Trinidad this fall to begin her next challenge: working closely with PLU and the cultural ministry to promote the study away program and the opportunities it presents for future students. Both PLU and the Caribbean nation are better for it.