Twenty-one Pacific Lutheran University Diversity Center alumni, family and support staff touched down in Trinidad and Tobago in late July to commemorate and celebrate the 25th anniversary of the university’s study away program with the Caribbean nation.
For many of the alumni, it was a homecoming: almost all had studied away in Trinidad during their time as students at PLU. But for everyone, it was an opportunity to experience a country and a culture radically different to the United States.
“This trip was an opportunity for alumni to experience the beautiful twin island republic of Trinidad and Tobago, in community with other alumni, staff, family and friends,” said Angie Hambrick, PLU’s associate vice president of diversity, justice and sustainability. “The trip aligned perfectly with the values of the Diversity Center — perspective taking, critical reflection, community, and care — and allowed us to fully and authentically engage with the people and culture of T&T and with each other.”
The group began the trip by ranging all across Trinidad — touring the capital city of Port of Spain; learning the history of the islands’ colonial past; exploring the Caroni Swamp and seeing the nation’s signature bird, the scarlet ibis; taking in a performance by the Malick Folk Performing Group, sinking into the sand of Maracas Bay — before taking the short flight over to Tobago.
The alumni began there with a day driving around the island to get a feel of the historical landmarks, monuments and foods, then traveled to island icons like the Buccoo Reef’s Nylon Pools, Store Bay Beach, Argyle Waterfall, Englishman’s Bay, and a rainforest hike through Main Ridge Forest Reserve before concluding with the music, food and vendors of Sunday School — an open-air night market and street fair. All told, a whirlwind seven days of cultural immersion that inflamed old memories and friendships while kindling new ones.
“You don’t know what relationships are until you come here. This is a real, relational place,” said Hambrick, who regularly returns to the islands as PLU’s J-term faculty leader. “People know us, they know who we are, they know every time of year when we’re coming, they expect us — it is a truly a reciprocal relationship that you can build with folks here, if you choose to.”
Those relationships form the core of a potent history between the university and this visually stunning, culturally rich republic located deep in the heart of the Caribbean.
Dr. Barbara Temple-Thurston, a retired English professor at PLU and the founder of the Trinidad Gateway program, took her first J-term class to the twin islands in 1993 after working with what’s currently the Global Education Committee to build a study away opportunity.
“That turned out to be such a phenomenal, eye-opening experience for all of us,” she said. “Carnival preparation was in full swing, so we got a little taste of the amazing creativity and zest for life that exists down there.”
From those early beginnings a strong and vital connection was forged over the ensuing quarter-century between country and university, enabling PLU students to experience cultural touchstones like Malick Folk Performing Company that wouldn’t be readily accessible otherwise. There is also a service component, with students volunteering a certain number of hours each week in the local communities into which they are placed.
“The program has heightened awareness of our Caribbean neighbors and the issues we face in a globalized world,” Temple-Thurston said. “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 line of faculty has remained unbroken throughout the 25 years of the program, attracting scholars across the university that include JoDee Keller, professor of social work and former J-term faculty lead, and Greg Youtz, professor of music and composer, who took over the reins as director of the T&T study away Gateway program in 2015.
Jessica Hanson, the current program manager, heads up central operations from PLU’s Wang Center for Global Education back in Washington. And as the on-site program coordinator, PLU grad and a native Trini, Candice Hughes ’08 acts as a vital bridge between Gateway students, their class experiences at the University of the West Indies and the communities they are placed into — an essential role that makes the entire operation run smoothly.
The cultural exchange from PLU’s Gateway program has flowed both ways. A partnership with the islands’ then-Ministry of Community Development, Culture and Gender Affairs saw a stream of Trinidad and Tobago students come to Washington state for four years of study at the university. There, they formed relationships with their American counterparts that remain strong today — several traveled to reconnect with the visiting alumni group during their stay on the islands.
“The joy of my life,” Kareen ’09 Ottley said of her studies in the States. “We made many memories throughout my period there with PLU.”
Two roundtable podcasts were recorded during the gathering — one with the Trinidad and Tobago students talking about their experiences studying abroad at PLU, and one with the dCenter alumni discussing what it means to be Black in the Caribbean and how seminal the study away opportunity in the islands was to them as students of color.
“Study away programming was a huge reason why I wanted to go to PLU. When I found out about Trinidad and Tobago, I was like, that’s it,” Nicole Jordan ‘15 said.
“This place was so important to me, like developing into who I am now — so I think being back this time just feels really special and I feel a lot more confident,” said Quenessa Long ‘18, who brought her mother on the alumni return trip. “It was my first time coming out of the country when I came to Trinidad and Tobago (the first time), so that was a pretty formative experience for me. I wanted her to have a little taste of what I have in my mind and something that was so important to my PLU experience.”