St. Lucian Students Thrive at IIT

By Eric Addison

St. Lucian students at the Illinois Institute of Technology were recognized onstage last March, during NSBE’s 2011 Annual Convention in St. Louis.

Lydia Pettis Patton, Ph.D. has a clear memory of the call she got from Carl B. Mack last July. Mack, NSBE’s executive director, had just returned from a one-week stay in St. Lucia, hosted by a community empowerment organization named RISE.

“He said, ‘Dr. Patton, I’ve just met some of the smartest kids I’ve ever met in my life. But they don’t have the money to go to college. Clarkson (University) gave me 10 scholarships. What can you do?’ ” Dr. Patton recalls. “I said, ‘I’ll give you 50 scholarships, and I’ve actually been told the number is unlimited.’ ”

The offer came from the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT), a Chicago university where Dr. Patton worked as an advisor in the Office of Admission. Gerald Doyle, IIT vice provost, soon increased the number of scholarships on the table to 75. On Aug. 22, less than two months after the call from Mack, 28 St. Lucian students deplaned at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport to start classes at IIT the next day.

A huge amount of work had been done in seven weeks to realize the students’ dream of higher education. NSBE National Chair Calvin Phelps had embraced the scholarship effort and presented it to NSBE’s National Executive Board for approval. Phelps and NSBE National Parliamentarian Tasha Zepherin had visited St. Lucia with Mack to meet the students and their local supporters in person. Mack had enlisted the help of Steve Scopellite, co-CIO of Goldman Sachs & Co., to secure $275,000 from Goldman Sachs Gives, the company’s donor-advised fund. This gift supplemented the scholarship funds from IIT. Mack also led negotiations with the St. Lucian government, which agreed shortly before the beginning of the fall semester to provide loan guarantees to the students. Then there were visas to be obtained and travel arrangements to be made for the students on an extremely quick turnaround.

“Getting the students here turned out to be a tougher battle than anyone anticipated,” Mack says, “but seeing them arrive in Chicago made it all worthwhile.”

‘Nothing But the Best’

Today, with two semesters behind them, the St. Lucian students are thriving at IIT. Seven attained perfect 4.0 grade point averages for one semester: Donel Edward, Stephen Felix, Keller George, Drexler James, Jaiede Jawahill, Jonelle Jn. Baptiste and Courtney Regis. The others all earned a 3.4 GPA or better. All of the students are members of the NSBE chapter at IIT, and four held leadership positions with the chapter during the 2010–11 program year: Krystal McDoom, vice president; Joannas Joseph, programs chair; Rachel Montoute, academic excellence chair; and Sirgi Theophilus, treasurer. This past summer was productive for the group: one interned for Goldman, Sachs & Co. in New York, others attended summer school at IIT, several conducted research, and many did community service work in Chicago.

“There were times when I thought I wouldn’t make it through, but by the grace of God and support from my family and friends, I succeeded,” says Jn. Baptiste, 20, an architectural engineering major from Vieux-Fort, St. Lucia. “America wants nothing but the best,” she says. “Being under pressure and having high expectations in terms of the quality of assignments from the professors at IIT allows me to make sure that I stand out in all that I do.”

Global Competition

McDoom, another architectural engineering major, says NSBE–IIT’s Chapter Executive Board has a number of goals for this year: “We definitely will continue with our Freshman Retention Program. Additionally, we assist our other members in the academic aspect by the implementation of a group study night every week. Professional development is also on our agenda for this year. We intend to develop the level of professionalism that each and every one of our members possesses, through various levels of networking, lectures, company tours, etc.”

Most of the students we interviewed spoke of how they plan to use their higher education to benefit St. Lucia, or told how their homeland is benefiting now.

“My career goal is to have my own firm,” says Jn. Baptiste. “Then I will work with the government in order to renovate the high schools, build apartment buildings so that people will no longer have to live in slums, and create community centers for the youth of St. Lucia.”

Dr. Patton says the success of the St. Lucia scholarship program has led IIT and NSBE to expand the concept to take in students from other Caribbean nations. As advisor for IIT’s Caribbean Recruitment Initiatives, she is now communicating with officials in Antigua and Barbuda, Grenada, Jamaica, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Trinidad & Tobago and Barbados, as well as St. Lucia. The university expects to admit 100 to 130 students from the Caribbean on scholarship this fall.

“There are millions of kids in these countries who are bright but just don’t have the connections to get to college,” she says.

“U.S. students are on a global stage now, competing with students from China, India and many other places around the world,” says Mack. “Bringing these high-achieving students here from the Caribbean is an excellent way to show African-American students the kind of success that is made possible by academic excellence.”