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Opening doors of opportunity and possibilities

Interview - May 4, 2012
Emmanuel Gonsalves, President of College of Science, Technology and Applied Arts of Trinidad and Tobago (COSTAATT) shares with us how the school has become more accessible than ever and how its international partnerships and accreditation are raising the bar of education on the island

You are celebrating 50 years since independence right now. What is there to celebrate in your opinion and what still needs to be done?

For a country to be able to celebrate 50 years of independence and to have achieved what we in Trinidad and Tobago have achieved over the past 50 years, I think is remarkable. There is a lot for us to be proud of and at the same time there are some things that we that we need to improve. But when you look back at the 50-year history of Trinidad and Tobago as a young independent country, we have accomplished a lot; however, as a nation we must continue to work hard in order to ensure our continued progress and development as a country.

If Trinidad and Tobago was a brand, what should be communicated about this brand internationally?

In my view, Trinidad and Tobago is a very unique brand. The uninitiated observer may not realize just how interconnected, diverse and integrated a country this is. We have an interesting mix of people from all races and creeds and this is unique from the Caribbean perspective, because it is probably the most diverse nation in the region. This diversity spans religion and ethnicity and even the economy itself can be described as very diverse, even though at this time it is primarily based on oil and gas. If one wished to brand the country you could say “Trinidad and Tobago is diversity, and to experience it, is to know it.”

COSTAATT continues to play a critical role in the development of Trinidad and Tobago, as you prepare students to become leaders of the 21st century. You contribute to the Government’s goal of achieving world-class status by 2020 (this is the stated goal of the previous government). How are the government’s plans to create a knowledge-based economy being implemented at the moment?

First of all, I believe that education has the capacity to transform lives and communities and ultimately, the nation. I also believe that it is the best and most assured way of achieving a better life for us and our families. If we can all do this, we will help to transform the communities in which we live, and the nation that we so dearly love. That is the foundation. I also believe that education should be a right and not a privilege, and it should be a right of all individuals in the pursuit of self-actualization. We have opened up the education system within the country and we have benchmarked our programs here at the college with the U.S. model of education. We are a comprehensive undergraduate institution offering two and four year undergraduate degrees.

Over the past three and a half years since I have been here, we have grown from five Bachelor’s degrees and 13 associate degrees to 42 bachelor degrees and 31 associate degrees. We also offer six postgraduate diplomas. We were created by an Act of Parliament to offer Bachelor’s and Associate degrees, but we are now moving in the direction of offering Master’s degrees. We have increased from 5,014 students when I first got here in 2008 to over 11,600 students today. We have graduated 3,600 persons in the past three years also. In fact, we have more than tripled the number of graduates in that period of time.

We are the only college in the country, and probably the region, that offers a comprehensive core curriculum. Our students must take 17 liberal arts courses aimed at broadening their knowledge base, regardless of their major area of study. Some of the courses are: Leadership, Comparative Religions and Literature, as well as Understanding Self and Others, which is a psychology course. We are trying to brand the college as a unique institution offering a comprehensive degree program that makes our students well-rounded, and gives them the degree-specific experience and knowledge that they need. The accountancy courses for example will qualify students to be prepared to sit the ACCA exam (level 2) or the CPA exam in the U.S. All of our degree programs are benchmarked against international standards.

As I said earlier, we believe that education is a right for all individuals in the pursuit of self-actualization. To that end, we place strong emphasis on opening up our admissions policy, so that we now have an approach that is close to open admissions. We take people with less than the requisite entry qualifications and put them through a developmental program called the COMPASS (Compensatory Program and Academic Support Services). We are opening the doors of opportunity for people, and as a result, there are approximately 2,000 (of our almost 12,000 students) now attending COSTAATT who would not have done so without the COMPASS program. So in keeping with our mission to create access, we have opened up doors of opportunity and possibilities for our people.

My personal belief is that a rising tide raises all boats, so if you bring in everybody and work to bring them up to the requisite level, you will have developed your people, given them opportunities and helped to develop the communities in which they live. I came back to Trinidad after spending 30 years in the U.S. where I went to school and received all of my qualifications. Several years experience as a Vice President of a college in the U.S. has prepared me for the job I now hold at COSTAATT. I returned to Trinidad and Tobago specifically because I believed that this college had the potential to play a significant role in the development of a knowledge-based economy and also, in the transformation of people and communities. You could say that I, we, the college – we are on a mission to transform. In our degree programs, we transform lives. We see students coming into the college, scared at first; but at graduation, we see confident young people, ready to take on the world of work; and many, ready to be more involved citizens. When we see this, we witness a part of the transformation that we speak about.

We do not only offer academic programs here – as mentioned earlier, we have a comprehensive core curriculum program through which we prepare our students for the world of work. We are currently in the process of negotiating internship agreements through the Chamber of Commerce, so our students will get internships and work experience while they are attending college. I call it a four-year test drive. You have a chance to evaluate this person and see if there is a fit. We are in the process of finalizing a memorandum of understanding with the Trinidad and Tobago Chamber of Commerce.

We believe that COSTAATT is making a significant contribution towards the development of the people of Trinidad and Tobago. I will give you a list of all the degree programs we offer and you will see the wide spectrum of disciplines in areas that are linked to national development. We have recently established the School of Journalism and Communication Studies which we have named after Ken Gordon, a media pioneer and icon in the Caribbean. We are trying to honor people for the contributions that they have made. We are trying to reach out to the community.

I must also mention that we were the first college in the country to be granted accredited status by the Accreditation Council of Trinidad and Tobago (ACTT). When we received accreditation in November 2010, we were the very first institution in Trinidad and Tobago to do so. In addition, last November we were ranked number one in terms of quality in higher education in the country. So COSTAATT is indeed making a significant contribution. We are truly in the business of transforming lives.

I have been told that this school has a very good reputation and it is very popular. How would you assess the current state of competitiveness of your students in the regional and global job market?

Let’s look regionally first. The college is ranked highly in the Caribbean because of its accomplishments in terms of accreditation and quality. Indeed, we already have students from other islands and our brand and reputation are becoming increasingly recognized in the region. In addition, our pursuit of international accreditation will no doubt enhance our presence throughout the region. In February this year, we filed such an application with an accreditation agency in Atlanta, Georgia. For COSTAATT, accreditation by international agencies will be reflective of the quality of our educational offerings; that quality will also be benchmarked against international standards, all of our degree programs are benchmarked against international standards. At COSTAATT we believe that a person should not be educated for their local environment only. The students we graduate must be ‘glo-cal’ – globally prepared, but locally-focused. i.e. we prepare them to be competitive in the global environment whilst being able to use those tools and skills and apply them in a local context. That is what we do here.
We are also pursuing international accreditation for our nursing programs. We provide most of the nurses for the health care sector in the country (about 800 to 900 students). We have the largest program in the country and are in the process of establishing a School of Nursing in El Dorado. COSTAATT will be in charge of managing and growing programs there. We have also filed an accreditation application for the National League for Nursing Accreditation Commission (NLNAC) in the U.S. The whole idea behind this is to ensure that we provide the best quality health care in terms of international standards with an international perspective. Our programs are internationally benchmarked and we prepare students to be competitive in an increasingly globalized environment. In such a mobile world, we must prepare our students to be successful in the real world. International accreditation can only further boost our standing with higher education institutions abroad. 
For our business programs, we have also filed an application to be accredited by the Accreditation Council of Business Schools and programs (ACBSP). That is how the College intends to ensure that the quality of what we do meets and exceeds international standards. The College anticipates that by early next year, we will receive international accreditation and we are confident that we will meet their standards. So we look forward to next year.

You said that you were looking for international accreditation from the U.S. Are you also open to international linkages, partnerships and student exchanges?

Absolutely. We have signed MOUs (Memorandums of Understanding) with approximately four colleges in the U.S. and I think one in the U.K. – Trinity College of Oxford University. We are working on agreements with other countries. Right now I am in discussions with NYU in the U.S. to form an articulation agreement with them, which involves a faculty and student exchange and a program exchange. This will give students international experience. We want to expose them to different cultures and life philosophies. We have also signed MOUs with entities within the country – I believe in partnering and strategic alliances. Our national partners include NEDCO (National Entrepreneurship Development Company) and the Community-based Environmental and Enhancement Program (CEPEP), which is a community employment  program. Part of our mandate is to broaden access and our efforts in terms of CEPEP contribute to Government’s aim to increase participation in higher education. We want to give them the tools and skills to enable them to have the opportunity to pursue college level work.

What is COSTAATT’s competitive advantage?

COSTAATT’s classes are small – 20 to 25. Our motto is “transforming lives, communities and the nation, one student at a time.” We give students individual attention – every student has a faculty advisor whom he/she can go to. We have a counseling program for students, as well as a referral plan for individual counseling. We provide access and opportunities. Our competitive advantage is individualized attention coupled with access and opportunity. We also offer a diverse range of programs. We are looking at creating a cyber-college, where we will offer full degree programs online. The College wants to establish its presence outside of the Caribbean, particularly after we obtain international accreditation. Our rates will be a lot cheaper than in the U.S., because our per credit cost is currently only TT$300 (which is only US$50) per credit. We are considering marketing our programs in the U.S. and attracting international students to our online offerings. The plan is that by September, we will establish a cyber-college where people can take courses online from all parts of the English-speaking Caribbean.

What are the institution’s CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) policies?

We offer a corporate social responsibility component to each student’s experience. When you graduate from COSTAATT you must have undertaken some type of community service. Every year students must complete a specified number of hours of community service.

As you know, we live in a globalized world and community between the countries leads to economic growth in the country. How do you value the power of communications?

That is a double-edged sword. Communication is great; however I believe that personal interaction is dying. For instance, it is strange that you are interviewing me and spending so much time face-to-face – normally, I might have expected a phone call, or a text, or Skype. I feel we need more of this personal interaction.
I believe that virtual and electronic communications have increased opportunities, but face-to-face interactions which are the building blocks of relationships and which form – so to speak – the ‘centerpiece of trust’ are diminishing. I think that can have negative repercussions. I think it is essential that we continue to expand the communications network and offer more services over the network. But we have to be mindful that we are losing the vital element of face-to-face interaction. 

You have a lot of experience from the U.S. and you said that you are a person with a mission here. How are you applying all of this experience here in COSTAATT?

Yes, I bring a perspective that is based on a U.S. model of education and 30 years experience of a different culture, and a different way of being. I believe that I bring these experiences to bear in the way in which I manage, and in the programs I have implemented and prioritized at the College. That is what has allowed me to move the institution forward as quickly as we have; because I bring a completely different perspective. I can foresee the issues and challenges, as well as the possibilities and potential for change. Therefore, this gives me something of an advantage in the Trinidad and Tobago context. As a result, I can say that we have been there and done that, and we can make this happen – we just have to believe that it will happen. As a result of the successes that we have achieved, the college community has been re-energized and refocused with an entrepreneurial mindset, so there is less resistance to change. In creating and introducing a core curriculum, which was not in effect before, many students ask why. I’ll give you an example. We introduced comparative religion as part of the core curriculum because we believed that such understanding would enrich our students’ educational and cultural life, which is so critical in a diverse society such as ours. And now, our students are seeing the value. You could even say that it is an important aspect of the national agenda for building a knowledge-based society.
Also, if you do not understand yourself and what has made you who you are, you cannot go forward. You have to understand what makes you who you are. I do – I was born here and I spent 30 years in the U.S., and all of these experiences make me who I am today. As a result of these experiences, I have come back and am contributing to my country. At least, I am trying.

What are your ambitions?

That is a good question. I believe I have the ideal career. It is bringing together all of my experiences and giving me the opportunity to implement and innovate in a way in which I always wanted, but never had the opportunity to do. I am an engineer by training; I did an MBA and a Juris Doctor, and here I am, leading an academic institution. I have used the skills from those various disciplines in a leadership environment. I believe that it is not where you start; it is where you end up. When I was here in Trinidad as a little boy, I wanted to be an engineer so badly, nothing else mattered. As a result, I used to run away from Spanish class because I thought learning Spanish was not important; so you won’t be surprised to know that I neither speak nor understand Spanish. But in hindsight, this was a mistake. As an adult, I can see the value of what I gave up. To know another language is to know another culture, another experience, another person’s world. I am convinced that education is not merely a means to earning a living, but rather, a tool for engaging with the world, understanding one another, making a difference, and ultimately, making our world a better place. I want young people to benefit from my experience.
I believe that I am at the ideal point in my career and I am happy doing what I am doing – providing opportunities for our citizens to transform not only their lives, but that of their communities and ultimately, the nation. I look forward to continuing to contribute to national development as we transform lives, communities, and the nation one student at a time.

How would you like Trinidad and Tobago to be perceived by our readers in the U.S.?

Trinidad and Tobago is diversity, creativity and energy; to experience it, is to know it. Trinidad and Tobago, we love it and I’m sure you would too.