June 15, 2011

 

 SGU unfazed by tumultuous events

 
 

University has endured invasion, hurricane
posted May 31, 2011

Grenada, West Indies
Hurricane Ivan tore the roofs off many buildings
near the harbor in St. George's, the capital of
Grenada, in 2004.

 

The history of St. George's University in Grenada, West Indies, may be short, but it's filled with plenty of memorable events.

The university got its start six months after Grenada won its independence from Britain on Feb. 7, 1974. That's when Charles R. Modica, now chancellor, pursued funding for SGU. He was only 29 at the time.

He and three others succeeded in raising enough money, and on July 23, 1976, St. George's University School of Medicine was established by an act of Grenada's parliament. Soon after, an advertisement ran in the New York Times seeking students for the first class. Two hundred matriculated in the charter class January 1977, with 25 faculty to teach them.  

Early challenges

It didn't take long for internal political strife to upend the newly independent government.
 

In March 1979, Prime Minister Eric Gairy's government was overthrown in a coup by the New Jewel Movement, led by Maurice Bishop. The leaders of several other Caribbean nations, and the U.S. government, were concerned by many aspects of the NJM government, primarily its ties to Cuba and its military expansion.

In 1983, an internal dispute led to Bishop being deposed and placed under house arrest. A week after, on Oct. 19, he and other party leaders were executed in a leftist coup.

U.S. President Ronald Reagan had been issuing warnings for the preceding few months about the perceived threat posed to the United States and the Caribbean by "Soviet-Cuban militarization." He pointed to the fact that Bishop had built a 9,000-foot runway in Grenada, saying that it wasn't meant for commercial flights, but instead, was intended to be part of a Cuban-Soviet military airbase.

On Oct. 25, U.S. troops invaded Grenada in Operation Urgent Fury. They killed or captured 750 Cuban soldiers and established a new government

Nearly 1,000 Americans were on the island, including students, faculty, and families mostly from SGU. Students were evacuated and classes were moved to Long Island, N.Y., New Jersey, and Barbados for a few months.

Provost Allen H. Pensick, PhD, joined SGU in 1984. He spent his first year teaching microbiology in Barbados before operations moved back to Grenada in 1985.

Soldiers were still there when the evacuees returned, he said, as was barbed wire on the beaches. Electricity was limited, phone service was out, and the roads were bad. But the university kept going. Dr. Pensick said students would study by candlelight when the power went out.  

Calm before the storm

Conditions on the island and at St. George's eventually returned to normal. 
 

Between 1993 and 1997, the university added graduate and undergraduate programs in arts and sciences, international business, life sciences, medical sciences, and pre-medicine.

St. George's School of Veterinary Medicine opened in 1999, but the idea for it first came about in the mid-'70s. Consultants at the time told Chancellor Modica that he should start both a veterinary and medical school, Dr. Pensick said.

"However, at that time, about 18 veterinary schools were supposed to be built in the United States, so the chancellor thought there wouldn't be a need," Dr. Pensick said.

It wasn't until 1998 when Chancellor Modica wanted to explore the possibility of a veterinary school again. St. George's veterinary school opened a year later, after the Grenadian government had given its approval and positions were filled.

Dr. Tara Paterson was in the inaugural class of 2003. Veterinary students and medical students back then shared most of their courses, such as histology, physiology, neurology, and immunology. One full-time veterinary faculty member would then teach supplementary laboratories. Dean David Hogg and visiting professors also pitched in.

Dr. Paterson completed her clinical rotation at the University of Florida, and after graduation, returned to Grenada. She's now an assistant professor in the Small Animal Medicine & Surgery Program at SGU SVM.  

Storm of the century

St. George's endured another catastrophe a few years later when Hurricane Ivan hit on Tuesday, Sept. 7, 2004. The Category 5 hurricane was the strongest hurricane on record that far southeast in the West Indies. 
 

According to news reports, the capital, St. George's, was hit by 125 mph winds, flattening homes and disrupting power. The storm destroyed the city's emergency operations center, the main prison, and many schools and damaged the main hospital. In all, it killed 39 people on the small island.

Buildings on the university campus remained relatively unscathed, save for dislodged tiles, broken windows, and water damage inside.

In fact, the campus became a staging area for relief and recovery efforts for the country while the students were moved to other locations. It provided housing for those involved in rebuilding efforts and for security forces from neighboring countries, and even served as an area where Parliament met.  

Dealing with the aftermath

In the weeks after the devastation, hundreds of students were shifted to medical and veterinary schools in the U.S. to continue their studies. First-year veterinary students went to North Carolina State University, second-year students to Purdue University, and third-year students to Kansas State University. 
 

Many SGU students brought whatever they had left to their destinations.

Dr. Paterson was actually in Toronto when the hurricane hit. Her daughter was due that day but wasn't born until six days later. She felt helpless, though, because her husband's family was still in Grenada. Everyone in her family was all right, but it was hard getting information from the island after the storm. In the meantime, she helped mobilize a relief effort in Toronto—home to a large Grenadian population—that week.

When Dr. Paterson finally made it to KSU with her then 6-week-old daughter, she taught for two weeks. K-State College of Veterinary Medicine Dean Ralph C. Richardson worked hard to accommodate everyone, she said.

The school allotted a large room in a basement for SGU faculty and students to use for classes in addition to providing desks, administrative assistance, and the use of a lecture hall.

"It seemed to run quite well," Dr. Paterson said. "They even let me join in on the rounds (at the veterinary teaching hospital)."

Students returned to Grenada the second week of January 2005. Students lost only a few weeks of class, she said, and practically all graduated on time.

Since then, the university has put in place even greater measures to protect against hurricanes, such as adding another generator.