School in the sun: Grenada’s St George’s University

St George’s University, in the tropical setting of Grenada, was once considered merely an offshore American institution. Not any more!

Charter Hall, a typical example of the immaculate buildings on SGUs True Blue campus. Photograph by Joshua Yetman and courtesy SGUDr CV Rao, one of the original SGU lecturers, is now Dean of Students. Photograph by Joshua Yetman and courtesy SGUIncoming medical students don their white coats, a symbol of their chosen profession. Photograph by Joshua Yetman and courtesy SGUProf Martin Forde, of SGUs Department of Public Health and Preventive Medicine. Photograph by Joshua Yetman and courtesy SGUStudents from St Kitts, Grenada and St, Vincent all studying various programs. Photograph by Joshua Yetman and courtesy SGU

Taking a visitor on a tour of St George’s University (SGU), communications officer Prudence Greenidge observes, “We’re in a tremendous growth spurt.” It’s no overstatement: the campus, with its casual, peach villa-style buildings overlooking a breathtaking cyan sea, has erected over 30 new academic and administrative buildings in the past decade. That’s not counting the 30-plus halls of residence, student facilities and other buildings on the 50-acre True Blue campus. Construction is still going on, evidenced by a fenced-in area next to a brand-new dormitory that houses hundreds of students.

SGU is the academic pride of Grenada. Begun in 1976 as a medical school, it has since expanded to include a school of veterinary medicine, a school of arts and sciences, and a graduate programme. From a 1977 class of 99 graduates, the university today boasts 4,653 enrolled students.

“You’re here because none of you could get into a school Stateside,” intoned a character in Going to Extremes, a long-dead US TV show about a fictional Caribbean medical school. “With the benefit of my time-tested educational techniques, I’m going to make a doctor out of you. And a damned good one, too.” The TV show portrayed a medical school that was a cross between M.A.S.H. and Club Med, a place where kids who weren’t good enough for US medical schools could scrape up a degree if they were able to brave the primitive conditions of the Caribbean.

The real-life SGU had its first campus on Grenada’s famous Grand Anse Bay, a sprawl of silky white sand lined with hotels and guesthouses. Dean of students Dr CV Rao, who arrived as an anatomy lecturer 17 days after classes began in 1977, remembers that yes, Grenada at that time was rough.

“Back in the 70s, you wouldn’t see any of this,” he said, in his office in a crisp new building called the Bourne Center. “The roads were not paved, there was no air conditioning, there was no TV.”

It was hard to get faculty to commit to moving full-time to Grenada, for those reasons. But SGU is now well known for the calibre of its lecturers, who number over 200 in Grenada, with a total of over 850 in all courses and locations.

“I can sit here and meet the world’s greatest authors, scholars. We find a lot of satisfaction in that,” said Rao.

He also finds satisfaction in the diversity of the student population. On a noticeboard in his office he has stuck up pictures of hundreds of his medical students. They are white, black and every shade in between. Rao boasts that in its 30th-anniversary celebrations the university had flags from 140 countries. “We’re practically a mini-United Nations.” Rao is from Benares, India, and came to Grenada via New Jersey.

SGU boasts many such stories. Although some 60 per cent of its students are from the US, there are others from Africa, Asia and the Caribbean. For example, Botswana’s government has a scholarship programme with SGU, as does Trinidad and Tobago.
Another aspect the university is justifiably proud of is the prestigious Windward Islands Research and Education Foundation (Windref). Its president is Lord Soulsby, a noted UK microbiologist and veterinarian. Windref’s projects have included research on infectious and non-communicable diseases, environmental issues and animals, and have been based in South and Central America, Africa and the Caribbean.

Martin Forde, a Trinidad-born scientist with Windref, said, “The kinds of things we do are not research for research’s sake.” He himself undertook to study biomedical waste-management practices in the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS) countries. He quips that it is gripping stuff, a best-seller. But such research is necessary to look at the safety of current practices, and to determine future directions for the medical industry.

His current project is a continuation of an Arctic study on the presence of persistent organic pollutants (POPs) in the population. Forde’s study, co-authored with a researcher from the University of Laval in Canada, will look at the same POPs in Caribbean people. The Atlantis Mobile Laboratory is at the core of the project, as it is housed in containers on the Grand Anse campus and will be shipped from Grenada to Dominica, St Lucia and Barbados over the next few months to do tests on the blood of pregnant women on each island. At each stop the project plans to train two lab technicians to do the necessary analysis, bringing new skills to the region.

“It’s not just to do research and leave, what they call ‘helicopter’ research. We’re really trying to build capacity. It’s like a training module within the Caribbean region.”

Forde is a professor in SGU’s Department of Public Health and Preventive Medicine. Grenada’s chief epidemiologist, chief dental officer, and several environmental health officers, he said, are graduates of the school, and the region has been benefiting from SGU’s public health master’s degree programme since it began ten years ago. There are a small number of Caribbean people in the school—75 per cent are from the US, 15 per cent from elsewhere and the remainder are from the region.

“If you look at the region, most of their key people, we’ve trained them. In a short space of time we’ve made a dramatic impact.”
Guests of SGU, including visiting faculty, stay at the University Club, a former hotel in the Lance Aux Epines district, a couple miles east of True Blue. At the club’s restaurant, a formally elegant room with a view of yet another beach, Greenidge and Colin Dowe, assistant dean of enrolment planning, brought three students to open up about life at SGU. All agreed the university was a boon.

Kenny James, a charmingly raffish liberal-studies student from Grenada, said he had been initially startled by the fees—which are listed as US$17,000 a year for pre-med years and more for basic science and clinical years. (Caribbean students pay considerably reduced rates.) But when he considered that he could study and remain in Grenada, James changed his mind. An executive member of the teachers’ union in Grenada, he felt it important to make a contribution to his homeland. He is on leave and that helps.

“I think it’s quite reasonable. And it’s home.”

For Andrea Vaughans, a Vincentian med student, SGU had her at hello. Though she became interested in the university at a college fair in St Vincent, it was when she saw the True Blue campus that she really was sold on it. There were other points as well. “Most (US) schools would accept you for pre-med readily, but med would have been a little more difficult. Quotas, prices, a lot of things were against making an international decision. And there were scholarships at SGU.” After pre-med, she did her first year in a study-abroad programme that sends SGU students to Newcastle, in England. She said she would recommend it to anyone.

Gail Cranstoun, of St Kitts, a soft-spoken student pursuing her master’s in public health, said she heard about SGU through a friend who had done the same programme. Now Cranstoun and her sister are both enrolled.

“I wasn’t interested in the University of the West Indies and I didn’t want to go to the US, [because of] the hustle and bustle. I thought, SGU is in Grenada, it’s the Caribbean, I wouldn’t have to adjust too much.”

Being surrounded by so many non-Caribbean people, however, was not what she expected to find.

“It’s challenging: people from different countries stick together.”

Vaughans had a different take on it. Because the school population is so mixed, students from non-US nations are pushed together by circumstance.

“You’re forced to work with other cultures. Not having a choice, it was very easy.”
On the roads in and around True Blue, minibuses emblazoned with the SGU crest shuttle students, faculty and guests to and from the campus. The fleet is only one way in which the university contributes to the economy. It is one of the largest employers on the island, a far cry from its birth, when four Americans founded it through an Act of Parliament by the Grenada government.

The school has endured a revolution (the Grenada Revolution in 1979, when a Marxist group led by Maurice Bishop took over) and an invasion (the US invaded—or intervened, depending on who you talk to—in 1983, with 6,000 troops). It has survived a massive hurricane (Ivan, in 2004, which devastated the country).

But SGU has weathered these storms. This is not the medical school depicted in Going to Extremes. Dowe, the assistant dean of enrolment planning, points out, “We’ve been at or above US performance on USMLE Step One (a critical medical studies examination).”

In fact, in a study recently released in the journal Academic Medicine, Grenada was ranked No 1 in USMLE Step One and Step Two/CK in the Caribbean for the highest first-time pass rate over the past 15 years among countries with medical schools in the Caribbean. Grenada had an 84.4 per cent pass rate in Step One, while the average was 49.9 per cent.

“Our students have been able to get into paediatrics, obstetrics/gynaecology, surgery and everything else,” says Dowe. “Our veterinary grads have four to five job offers on graduation. It speaks to a shortage—but it also says people want our students.”