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UWI St Augustine valedictorian Joshua Ramjattan.

The 2021 graduates of the University of the West Indies’ St Augustine Campus have been recognised as one of the cohorts who have had to demonstrate the most resilience and adaptability in order to overcome the unprecedented challenge the COVID-19 pandemic has created.

In commending his fellow university-mates during yesterday’s virtual graduation ceremony for the Faculties of Science & Technology and Food and Agriculture, valedictorian Joshua Ramjattan described their journey as one which “has been uniquely unconventional in every sense of the word.”

He said while life is seldom predictable, it would be a gross understatement to say that 2020 did not present an unprecedented challenge for all.

Delivering the valedictory speech from the campus football field, Ramjattan said despite the research and development which have occurred in the area of science and technology, “it is often difficult to consider how rapidly and drastically our lives were forced to change in March of 2020 when this invisible pathogen was recorded to have breached our borders.”

He recalled studying in his apartment on March 13, 2020, for a Statistics exam that same day, when the news first broke that schools and universities would be closed for one week following Trinidad and Tobago’s first recorded case of COVID-19.

Ramjattan remembered, “Later that evening, many of us Math students wrote that exam in the C1 classroom, completely unaware of what the next week would look like. That was my last memory on this campus.”

Forced to transition within one week to a mode of learning with which, for the most part, the graduates had been unfamiliar, he revealed that the C3 lecture room and FST 114 had been abruptly transformed into a virtual classroom…limited to a shared screen, a chat-box and a ‘raise hand’ feature for questions.

“Make no mistake, this was no easy undertaking,” he said.

Ramjattan admitted, “The loss of human connection eventually began to take its toll on us.

“Knowledge was not retained in the typical way. Exams were written on paper while reading questions on a computer monitor, all while clinging on to the last glimmer of hope that our Wi-Fi and electricity would hold out for the duration of the exam. Somehow, we endured.”

Applauding the achievements of the graduating faculties in the face of the adversities they had all faced during the pandemic, he noted, “I continue to be amazed and inspired by all students at all levels of our education system who are still in this fight today, pressing forward despite the challenges of virtual learning. We are part of a generation asked to dispose with the business-as-usual approaches and reinvent the shape of the box.”

Looking ahead as they bid farewell to this chapter, Ramjattan advised, “No class of graduates ever enters a perfect world. Yet, it is safe to say that we are moving into a truly remarkable period of human existence, filled with its own distinct problems. We are still dealing with a deadly pandemic, with new variants and inequality in global vaccine distribution, as well as vaccine hesitancy.”

Noting the entire world was plagued by the effects of climate change, crime, inequality, food insecurity and underemployment, Ramjattan said, “These problems require radical responses and an exceptional class of persons ready and willing to challenge the status quo on the previous attempts at solutions. The world needs persons like the environmental scientists among us, who will be resolute in expanding our investment in renewable and alternative sources of energy.

“Graduates, the unfortunate reality is that our generation does not have the privilege of a choice when it comes to such problems. The deadline to act has come and gone and we are living through the effects of inaction right now.”

He said policymakers will rely on these graduates for sound scientific data and expertise that will inform their judgements.

“It is imperative that we remember to abide by all the scientific principles and professional codes of conduct which we have been taught,” he advised.

Ramjattan also appealed to persons to engage in some introspection.

“These are not ordinary circumstances, and it is fortunate that we are no ordinary graduates. While the chemists among us may disagree, I believe that the carbon atoms from which we are made are more strongly bonded than in any group of graduates who have come and gone before us. We are not made of the same material as others. We have been tested, pushed to the breaking point and the limit of our potential was sought.

“The mathematicians among us know there is no greater proof than this past year and a half to know that that limit does not exist. We are uniquely prepared and positioned to confront the problems of tomorrow.”