It is one of the territory’s most revered institutions today, but there are those who remember when the very idea of a College of the Virgin Islands drew sneers from some and little more than crossed fingers and hopeful prayers from others.
For the young Malcolm Kirwan, who had just finished high school in St. Kitts with high honors and high hopes of attending the well-respected Howard University, the newly founded CVI was a school with “no reputation of any kind.” But it offered him a full scholarship.
That turned out to be one of the most consequential decisions of his life. Once he earned his associate’s degree in accounting in 1967, he got an unsolicited job in the business office. That was to last two years, he thought.
But as he prepared to take his next step towards a Bachelor’s degree by heading to college in Canada, CVI’s first president, Lawrence Wanlass, anxious to establish Caribbean roots for the college, presented a deal. If Kirwan stuck with CVI, he could combine work and study.
The college had an agreement with the University of Connecticut to accept CVI grads who wanted to complete a four-year degree. Kirwan could act as student coordinator for the Virgin Islands students at “UConn” while he furthered his own education there.
The plan worked even better than Wanlass had hoped. By taking a double course load, Kirwan not only completed his Bachelor’s, he earned his Master’s degree. Soon, he joined the top management at CVI. Kirwan spent a lifetime with the institution. He officially retired in 2005, but his ties remain strong.
His personal story and his affection for the college cum university are familiar to many of its pioneers. Now Kirwan and three others – longtime professors Maxine Nunez, Paul Leary, and William De Lone – have come together as an informal volunteer committee of four to preserve the story of the institution’s origins and development.
They have been working quietly for months, reaching out to faculty, staff, and students from the early days, asking them to share their recollections. Each of the four have also told their own stories. All will be compiled in what they hope will prove a compelling history.
The college received its charter in 1962, in legislation pushed by then Gov. Ralph Paiewonsky. In 1963 it welcomed its first students, 45 full-time and 283 part-time. The St. Thomas campus opened first in converted barracks left over from the U.S. Navy days in the territory. The next year, an academic program for part-time students started in an old plantation house on St. Croix.
Initially, the institution offered only a few two-year associate’s degrees. Today, according to its website, UVI offers Bachelor’s degrees in 32 disciplines and Graduate degrees in 11. It also offers six associate degrees and four certificate programs. It supports five schools and colleges. Many of its courses and degrees are offered online as well as in person.
Momentum has built steadily over its 60-year lifespan, but the birth was not an easy one.
Some opponents of the idea of establishing a Virgin Islands college argued it was unnecessary and would be an economic drain on the government treasury.
For Nunez, who grew up on St. Thomas and earned her doctorate from Johns Hopkins School of Public Health before returning home and taking the helm of CVI’s nursing department in 1974, there was no reason not to establish the college. But there were many who disagreed.
“People were doubtful that it would be a successful experiment,” Nunez said. They questioned whether the territory could recruit enough qualified teaching and administrative staff to support it. They wondered if it could grow beyond a two-year institution. They worried there would not be enough money to run it.
Besides, many thought there were not enough potential students to support it. Those who wanted a degree could, and already did, go to college on the Mainland.
But that was an option only for those who could afford it. And Kirwan said, “Many people who left never came back.”
As De Lone put it, “The vision was to stop the brain drain.”
In the early 60s, the territory was on a political threshold. It was beginning the push for an elected, rather than a federally appointed governor, for some sort of congressional representation and for local legislators who were more closely tied to their constituents.
“What was coming was this greater autonomy for the Virgin Islands,” Kirwan said. The territory needed to develop more leaders.
It also needed a middle class. Part of the college’s mission was “educating the workforce,” De Lone said.
For the People
Early on, it established courses in nursing, education, and business, with the cumulative effect that it nurtured hundreds of professionals, De Lone said.
“Students came first in everything,” Kirwan said, a sentiment echoed by all the members of the committee in separate interviews. “That was the culture of the institution.”
That philosophy manifested itself in many ways, according to Kirwan. There were remedial courses for those lacking academic background, financial assistance for those lacking money, night classes, and part-time course study for those who had to hold down a job while they attended school.
CVI eased the hardship on St. John students, covering the fare for the ferry to St. Thomas and providing transport from the dock across the island to the campus and back again.
For the first four or five years, students got a one-time, two-week trip to New York and Washington, D.C., Kirwan said. The idea was to broaden their view of the world; for many, it was the first introduction to life beyond the islands.
Kirwan recalls a small but diverse student body when he first went to CVI. In addition to students from the territory, there were some from Africa and some from the U.S. Mainland, and many from other Caribbean islands.
Leary was ready for a diverse student body when he decided to leave his teaching post in political science at the University of Connecticut in 1969 and apply for the one at CVI, which he had seen posted on a bulletin board.
Initially, he felt the weight of being an outsider, but that soon melted as he embraced the V.I. culture that he found “put a high value on human contact.”
“I spent my entire life in higher education,” said De Lone, who is still a professor at American University.
What he found at CVI when he joined the faculty in the business school in 1970 was a student body unusually eager for education.
“They were quite motivated and interested in learning,” he said. Many were the first in their families to attend college. He taught the traditionally young students in the day. At night he taught older, working people – including some parents of his day students.
The value of CVI/UVI stretches beyond the individual student and outward from the classroom, according to the committee.
“It’s been a major contributor to the Virgin Islands,” De Lone said.
Its Reichhold Center for the Arts brought renowned international performing artists to the territory and showcased and nurtured local talent. The Eastern Caribbean Center established itself as the primary research arm of the territory and a resource for all the Caribbean. Its marine program has partnered with various universities and facilities on ground-breaking studies.
From its earliest days, it has sponsored forums, conferences, seminars, and visiting lectures, open to the public. It was a catalyst for discussion about the territory’s political status and many other issues.
Sixty years on, there’s barely a facet of VI life that the university has not touched.
That legacy was the motivation behind the retrospective project. Nunez, Leary, Kirwan, and De Lone are all volunteers. They have interviewed many people who were involved with CVI in its formative years. They hope to wrap up the interviewing phase of the project at the end of the summer, but right now, they are still looking for pioneers.
If you are a former CVI student, staffer, or faculty member and would like to share your experiences, contact Nunez at firstname.lastname@example.org.