Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Pioneer for Open Campus


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An incredibly warm personality. That’s the first thing that strikes you about Hazel Simmons-McDonald.

Something in her voice invites you in. What touches you the most, though, is the depth of her humility.

Seven years ago Professor Simmons-McDonald, who has just retired, took the helm of the University of the West Indies’ (UWI) fledgling Open Campus as its pro vice-chancellor and principal. She ensured that UWI established a firm foothold in the current technology-driven education era, and cemented its place in the new knowledge economy.  

Her illustrious career has spanned 40-odd years. Last June 28, at the World Corporate Universities Congress, she received an award from the Global Distance Learning Congress for her outstanding leadership in the field. This most recent honour for the native St Lucian comes not long after her investiture (in 2011) into the Order of the British Empire (OBE) by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, for her contribution to the field of education.

Simmons-McDonald’s life-long commitment to education excellence began in 1970. Upon achieving a bachelor of arts degree in English from UWI, she became a language and literature teacher at St Joseph’s Convent Secondary School in St Lucia. Some 37 years, several diplomas, two masters degrees and one PhD later, she would be part of the pioneering team that established the UWI Open Campus.  

“UWI’s Strategic Development Plan 2007-2012 included an idea to literally bring UWI to the people,” she explained.

“My work in education outreach gave me a unique perspective on what the Open Campus should look like, and how it should function. I thought that might be a fun assignment, and actually had a lot of fun doing it,” she chuckled lightly. “On submitting my vision, I was asked to head up the new entity.”

Those early years were exciting as she and her team – comprising the heads of the former UWI Schools of Continuing Studies – devised ways to combine UWI’s longstanding academic traditions with recent advancements in education and mobile technology, and developed courses and subject areas that would be relevant and in heavy demand by the new range of students who would populate the Open Campus, both in person and online.  

The team worked to integrate many disparate outreach arms of the university – Schools of Continuing Studies and their research units; the Tertiary Level Institutions Unit; UWI-DEC and other bodies. They brought them together seamlessly under UWI’s governance structure, while successfully forging the kinds of strategic partnerships necessary for the sustainability of the Open Campus itself.  

Through it all, the professor said her primary focus was the students.

“Open Campus brings hope for people who thought higher education was a dream beyond their reach. For me to accomplish that, helping people achieve their dreams, perhaps is the most rewarding thing I’ve experienced in the Open Campus.”

By 1972, she had  obtained a diploma in education with a specialisation in English and, between 1977 and 1982, had completed two masters’ degrees at Stanford University: international development of education and linguistics, followed by a PhD in applied linguistics.  

During this decade, she learnt more about how language was created and the best and most effective ways it should be taught, via training in English education, Creole linguistics, linguistic approaches to literature and cognitive and social psychology, as well as creative writing workshops targeting children’s literature. These paved the way for her life’s passion and to her ground-breaking research in vernacular education.  

Outside of academia, her love affair with words and language led to involvement in the creative arts, including acting and directing plays in the 1970s, and writing short fiction and poetry throughout the years.  

Her short fiction has been featured in POUI: The Cave Hill Literary Annual as well as BIM (a literary journal from Barbados). Her poetry has been published in several anthologies and periodicals in the Caribbean region, Canada and the United States.  

The secret behind the professor’s success? A supportive family.

“Without them, I would not have been able to do half of what I did. I thank them so very much for being so wonderful about it all . . . .”

Like many professional women, Simmons-McDonald has moments when she wishes she had spent more time with her children, but she believes that her drive for excellence may have been one of her best gifts to them. As her parents had instilled in her the values of hard work, excellence and commitment, she sought to do the same in her role as parent – in words and actions.

“It was important for me to teach them how to read, and to help with their homework every evening after dinner,” she recalled. “Afterwards, while they were in bed, I’d do my own work.”

A critical factor was finding ways to keep the family together, especially during assignments that required extensive travelling and long stints away from home.

“I’d take the kids with me. Even on assignment,” she says, “I’d try to incorporate fun, so they could experience the wonder of different places.  I taught them that your work is tied to your experiences in so many different ways.”

Life and work became easier as the children grew older. Having a husband willing to do baby-sitting, kitchen and laundry duties when necessary, certainly went a long way. As far as she is concerned, her success is as much theirs, as it is hers.

Professor Simmons-McDonald is looking forward to retiring her academic hat and being creative.

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