The first image most visitors to the U.S. Virgin Islands see looking out a plane window is clear blue water and white sand and shell beaches. Upon arriving on St. Thomas and St. Croix, they might be surprised to also see signs with directions to the University of Virgin Islands (UVI) campuses, reminders that there is a thriving educational institution on islands best known as resorts.
At a reception Saturday during a weekend visit to Martha’s Vineyard, Governor of the U.S. Virgin Islands John de Jongh, his wife, Cecile, UVI President David Hall, and his wife, Marilyn, drew connections between the two travel destinations, and discussed the everyday needs of year-round residents of the Virgin Islands.
Auguste “Gus” Rimpel, and his wife, Maria, hosted the visitors at their Vineyard Haven home.
Mr. Rimpel was born in the Virgin Islands, but said he has a “two-sided love affair with this other Island; Martha’s Vineyard.” Chairman emeritus of the UVI Board of Trustees, he and his wife also own a home in the Virgin Islands.
“The Virgin Islands is a place of tourism where a lot of people come to, and we want you to have a very nice time. If you don’t have money, we still accept credit cards,” Gov. de Jongh told a crowd of several dozen. “But, once you peel that back, it’s a very exciting, and a dynamic community that is changing.”
The event was held to raise awareness of UVI, a public institution with campuses on St. Croix and St. Thomas that began admitting students 50 years ago. Currently there are 2,392 students enrolled.
“One of our aspirations has always been to make the university better known, and I think that it’s one of the best kept secrets in the Western hemisphere in terms of higher education,” Mr. Hall said. “Though people within the Eastern Caribbean are very much familiar with UVI, a lot of individuals on the mainland are not.”
Mr. Hall became the president of the university three years ago, leaving his position as dean of the Northeastern University School of Law, which he held since 1993.
“When I was given the opportunity to take on this position, many of my friends, some in this room, said I was deciding to become president because of the beaches and the turquoise water and escaping the Boston winters,” he told party attendees. “Though that was part of the reason, there was a deeper motivation. This is a very special university where I felt I could make a difference in the lives of students of the Virgin Islands.”
Quickly, Mr. Hall realized he needed to reach out to students beyond the university walls. The superintendent of the St. Thomas district schools contacted him, saying that she had 50 male students that were going to fail the seventh grade, a microcosm for the public school system in the territory.
Seventh grade is a pivotal point to reach out to students on the Island, Mr. Hall said, because it is at that age when students begin to be held back or drop out. “If left back, they would become more vulnerable to gangs and falling on the negative path.” In 2010, the Virgin Islands had the second highest homicide rate in the world, behind only Honduras.
The two worked with other school administrators and teachers to develop an intensive remedial program to help students continue their studies. “All of the students who participated in that program were able to move on to the eighth grade,” he said.
When the governor took office January 1, 2007, his wife, First Lady Cecile de Jongh, made one of her causes literacy, focusing on early education.
“We’ve made the connection between our youngest and those going off to college,” she said. “We’re taking care of ages zero to seventh grade, and Dr. Hall can take care of the older ones. In the words of Obama: we’ve got this.”
Yet low rates are still felt at the college level. In 2009, the UVI student body was 75 percent female and 25 percent male, with only one in four students earning a degree after six years of study. To increase recruitment, retention, and graduation rates, Dr. Hall convened a male initiative called “Brothers with a Cause.” Three years later, the student body is 30 percent male.
“We’re not satisfied by any stretch of the imagination,” he said. “But we are making some inroads.”
Last month, the university was dealt a budget cut of $3.5 million from government contributions. “We’re tightening our belts more so than we would like, but that’s the reality we’re facing,” Mr. Hall said.
To close the budget gap between spending and receiving, the campus created the “50 for 50 Campaign,” asking UVI alumni to donate for the university’s anniversary.
Mr. Hall said donations are up to 25 percent, from 6 percent two years ago. “We’re very impressed,” he said. “If you know any alumni who haven’t donated, or would like to become an alumni and donate, let us know.”
Dionne V. Jackson, UVI Vice President for Institutional Advancement, thanked all for attending the event and gave special thanks to the Rimpels, Dr. Hall, and the governor.
“I’d like to thank him for his support of the university and for making sure — he actually promised — there would be no more budget cuts to the university,” said Ms. Jackson with a wink as she shook hands with Governor de Jongh. “Thank you, thank you governor.”