The road from Port Elizabeth to MIT

I recently met with Helen Stowe whose daughter, Keonna Simon, is enrolled in the biology program at MIT. For many, her journey is a story of academic achievement, which of course it is. But it’s also about how we support children, how they learn and grow. 

And it’s about opportunity. Raised on Bequia, Keonna’s story hinges on a unique STEM program run on Barbados each summer. This giving season, we’d like to focus on sending more students from SVG to that program, the Student Program for Innovation in Science and Engineering (SPISE) which is run by the Caribbean Science Foundation. As you consider places to give this Giving Tuesday, we ask that you consider joining us in sponsoring young people to attend SPISE in 2023. 

by Glen Herbert 

“I think I am living my life through her,” says Helen Stowe, “in the sense that that is what I always wanted for my life. Not the MIT part, but to go to university. Because, as cliché as it may sound, I think education is the way out of poverty.”

Helen’s daughter, Keonna Simon, enrolled this fall in the computational biology program at MIT. Understandably, there is a bit of emotion in Helen’s voice as she talks about Keonna and the journey she’s had from Bequia to what is, by any measure, the most important technology school in the world. 

“I always wanted something different for myself,” she says. “At high school in Bequia, I didn’t do well, not because I couldn’t, but because I didn’t have the opportunity and the support.” Helen moved the mainland to further her education, but it was hard juggling work, studies, and life. She ultimately got a degree, but when she got pregnant, “I decided it was either me or the child. And I chose the child to do the education that I never got to continue.” 

The child knows

Helen raised Keonna as an only parent. “It was just normal things,” she says, “but I decided to put everything I have into this child.” Rather than mapping out a future for Keonna, Helen was simply there, by her side, encouraging curiosities. She mentions how, when Keonna was young, she wanted a microscope, so Helen got her one for Christmas. The next year she wanted at telescope, so Helen got her one of those as well. They weren’t cheap, and money was tight, but it seemed better to encourage those interests. “The thing is she never used those things!” she says, laughing. “But I say this to say that a child knows, and I think it’s adults that limit the child. What if I had gone and said, ‘well, we don’t have the money for you to be a scientist.’ What if I had gone and said, ‘I can’t afford to buy a telescope and a microscope.’ But I didn’t. I never told her we don’t have money. If she says ‘I want to be a chef,’ I say, OK, you will be the best chef ever. And she’ll say ‘I want to be a nurse,’ and I will say, ‘OK, you will be the best nurse ever. Be whatever you want.’ … I never limit her, I only support her the best way that I can.”

Helen paid for private school on the mainland with the help of the school, and by that time they were living there. “It was just the two of us, so I always helped her with her homework. I tried to guide her as best as I can. It was just us, doing it one day at a time.” 

The culture of the school was competitive, though Helen hoped to keep Keonna above that. To just learn. “I was in complete shock when she was valedictorian of her high school,” she says. “Not that she wasn’t doing well. But I didn’t know, who was the next person? Who was doing as well or better than her? All I knew was what she was doing. So, when that happened I thought, ‘Ok, if you can do this, you can do other things.’ And in herself she also said, ‘I can do this.’”

Keonna went to community college, though Helen kept her ear to the ground for anything that might add to the experience. One day she saw a note on the US embassy facebook page about a STEM program in Barbados. It was the Caribbean Science Foundation (CSF) four-week residential summer enrichment programme, the Student Programme for Innovation in Science and Engineering (SPISE). Included at the link was a table showing participation in the program broken down by the participants’ home countries over the past decade. (You can see that table here.) “When I looked at it I saw that SVG is the least represented island at SPISE. Basically, no companies were sponsoring students.” In other countries, companies sponsor children, which they do as a point of pride. The majority of the students have arrived from Jamaica, Barbados, Dominica and St. Kitts. And while dozens had arrived from Jamaica alone, only 9 students from SVG have ever attended.

The success the SPISE program has is, actually, astonishing. (Keonna is one of 14 students who have gone on to MIT after having attended, for example.) Hosted at the Cave Hill campus of the University of the West Indies, it’s a four-week, in-person intensive course in STEM. 

But it’s more than just that. It’s a place where young people like Keonna can meet others of similar ability and aspiration. For once in her life, Keonna entered a setting where everyone was, in a sense, speaking her language, the same one that she and Helen spoke all those evenings over homework. It was a setting where she met other young women and female instructors involved in science. “They give them university training, they introduce them to universities,” says Helen. They also encourage the students in ways that other educators either don’t or can’t. One of the instructors put Keonna in touch with MIT, aware that that she’d be eligible for support there. The connections were made, the letters of recommendation written, the forms filled out. “And that’s how she’s at MIT now.” 

“I think about what I wanted for me, about how I wanted somebody to love me.”

“I wouldn’t say I’m naturally gifted in some subject areas,” Keonna says. “I’d just say I’m very determined. And my mother was also a great support system. Whenever I was frustrated she always gave me advice.”

Keonna is impressive in every way, both for her intellect and her spirit. Given what she’s done, she’s understandably gained media attention. But, Helen, too, is a very moving and important part of the story. “I’m not poor, but I don’t have money,” she says. “People like me usually think that we cannot afford university. And if you look at some of these students, who I know personally, they usually come from a two-parent home. So, they have a little bit more. And most of them would have been doctors, lawyers, professionals. [But] I am one of a few who were, like, ‘no, there has to be another way.’”

And there was. Keonna is now enrolled in molecular biology and computer science. “She wants to be a bioinformatician.” That she’s aware of that particular field is another product of that STEM course. “It was never intentional,” Helen says. There was never a plan. It was just a series of moments spent thinking about things, exploring ideas, and dreaming dreams. “I think also that I had to unlearn a lot of things,” she says. “And I did my unlearning through her. In terms of what I see where my family went wrong. My father and I didn’t have relationship.” You can hear the emotion rising in her voice as she says this. “And I think I used all of that. It may have been selfish, but I think about what I wanted for me, about how I wanted somebody to love me.” She pauses, then adds, “I love that child, and I did not want to recycle behaviour. I think that was the most difficult part of my life, from zero to 19 years. So, that was also part of it.”

The road from here

Helen, of course, misses Keonna. Because of the cost and the timing, she’s not able to be home for the holiday. “I think I can make it for graduation,” Helen says, knowing that it’s years away. “Maybe next year I can go to see her in person.” But it’s not easy. Keonna is supported by MIT, and was given a financial award based on merit. She’s also received a financial award from the government of SVG. There are other costs, and that’s where we at the Grenadines Initiative have been able to help out, thanks to a grant from the Brown Foundation. 

But there are lessons in Keonna’s story that we’ve been able to learn from. That table on the SPISE website is one of them. We weren’t aware of the program, though clearly it’s one that we can and should support students to attend, gaining a better representation for SVG. The country doesn’t lack talent but, as Helen notes, it’s a question of opportunity and support. And that’s were we can help, knowing that there are others like Keonna out there, right now: talented young girls, thinking about what they want to be. We should help them, simply because we can. 

As we enter the giving season, we ask you to help us support students to attend the SPISE program next summer. For more information on how you can help, email me at glen.herbert@grenadinesinitiative.orgDonations can be made by clicking here and indicating in the message field that you’d like to support students attending SPISE in 2023. And thank you. 

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