“You will know them by their fruits.” — Matthew: 7:16
For the past dozen years, the presidents of Saint John’s University (SJU) have made an annual visit to The Bahamas, primarily to visit alumni of that university who live here.
Founded in 1857, SJU is one of the oldest institutions of education in the Midwest.
For most of its 163-year history, the SJU presidents were appointed from the monastic community of Saint John’s Abbey, the same institution that established St. Augustine’s College and St. Augustine’s Monastery in 1945.
As noted in an earlier column, their contributions to the personal, spiritual, educational, athletic, and familial growth and development of the Bahamian society are as incalculable as they are legendary.
The reality of monastic SJU presidents irrevocably changed in 2012, when Dr. Michael Hemesath was appointed as the first full-time lay president of the university, although Dan Whalen held the office of Interim President from October 2008 to June 2009. The current Interim President is Dr. Eugene McAlister, who has served since August 2019.
Since 2015, Dr. Mary Dana Hinton, president of the College of Saint Benedict (CSB), has joined the SJU president in annual visits to The Bahamas, usually in February. This past week, the presidents of both institutions made their annual sojourn here, and this recent visit was historic in several ways, which will be discussed later in this column.
Therefore, this week, we would like to consider this — what benefits have accrued to The Bahamas and to Bahamians by the annual visits of the presidents of these two noble institutions?
The early years’ visits
In 2008, SJU presidents began their annual visits to The Bahamas.
Those presidents included Brother Dietrich Reinhart, OSB (president from June 1991 to October 2008), Fr. Robert Koopman, OSB (president from July 2009 to July 2012), Dr. Michael Hemesath (president from August 2012 to July 2019), and now Dr. Eugene McAlister (president since August 2019.)
In the early years, SJU presidents spent most of their time visiting alumni who had returned to The Bahamas after obtaining a university education from that institution.
The latter years
In recent years, the two consecutive SJU lay-presidents and CSB’s Dr. Hinton also took the opportunity to meet with SJU and CSB alumni and prospective students and their parents during their visits.
They also met with successive governors general and government officials to accomplish an even more comprehensive objective: apprising the latter of developments and plans of the two institutions.
They also invited The Bahamas government to establish a memorandum of understanding (MOU) for greater government participation in the award of scholarships for Bahamian students at both institutions.
The fruits of their labors
The engagement of the lay presidents has resulted in phenomenal results, including the doubling of enrollment of Bahamian students at the two institutions, which before the MOU, consistently recorded an annual enrollment of approximately 30 Bahamians. After the MOU, the enrollment has more than doubled to 65 Bahamian students, nearly evenly distributed between CSB and SJU.
During this period, the two institutions witnessed not only an increase of Bahamian students; but, for the first time since the signing of the MOU, many students from the public schools were enrolled at CSB and SJU.
In previous years, most of the Bahamian students were graduates of St. Augustine’s College.
Today, the enrollment hails from virtually all private and many public schools, the latter representing a significant broadening in Bahamian enrollment.
It is also worthy of note that most of the students are the first generation of their families to attend college, a reality that could not have been achieved without the existence of the MOU.
Additionally, Bahamians have excelled – and not only academically.
They have also fully engaged and excelled in extra-curricular activities, including student government.
The student body has elected three of the last four SJU presidents of the Student Senate.
Those SJU Senate presidents are Ramon Mitchell, David Johnson III, and Owyn Ferguson, the current SJU Senate president.
Lest anyone wonder if this is an aberration, it should be noted that approximately one-third of the current Student Senate is comprised of Bahamians.
This excellence is not limited to SJU. Kistachia Thompson currently serves as president of the CSB Student Senate.
Bahamians are renowned not only for their academic excellence on both campuses, but also for their courteousness and their involvement in campus life.
Dr. Hinton recently informed officials at the Ministry of Education during her visit this week that she has never had to discipline any Bahamians during her term as CSB president.
During their visit this week, as in past visits, the two presidents, along with their delegation from CSB and SJU and members of the CSB and SJU alumni associations in The Bahamas, paid courtesy calls on the prime minister and senior members of the Ministry of Education to apprise them of developments at the two institutions.
However, for the first time ever, the two presidents led a delegation to Freeport, Grand Bahama, where they met with an impressive number of CSB and SJU alumni on that island.
In addition, the delegation attended a combined convocation for students of Mary Star of the Sea Academy and Sunland Baptist Academy.
The keen interest and profound engagement of the students who are considering their college options were palpable.
It is quite likely that the delegation’s visit will usher in a new era for Grand Bahamian students who will apply for admission to both institutions in the future. The other high schools in Freeport were invited to the convocation but did not attend.
During their visit to Freeport, the delegation also met with senior executives of the Grand Bahama Port Authority and the Freeport Container Port to encourage those companies to consider offering scholarships for Grand Bahamian students who choose to attend CSB and SJU.
The reception by those corporate executives exceeded the delegation’s expectations.
On Saturday evening, the presidents hosted a reception for approximately 120 alumni, prospective students and their parents, and government officials.
During her remarks at that reception, Dr. Hinton informed the gathering that this would be her last visit to The Bahamas as the president of CSB as she will be retiring on June 30, 2020.
During her remarks to the assembled, Dr. Hinton observed that “as I stand before you tonight, I see the exalted past of our partnership [and] the Bahamian students that I have met will forever be in my heart as much as I will be in theirs.”
Dr. Hinton will be greatly missed by all who have come to know her along with the remarkable contributions she has made to both institutions since 2014.
The last decade of engagement by the presidents of both institutions will be recorded as an era of enormous growth and immeasurable, bi-directional contributions of these institutions.
While they have benefited from their immense commitment to The Bahamas, Bahamians’ lives have equally been enormously enriched.
The deep, life-long, personal relationships that have developed and fostered between these Minnesota institutions and The Bahamas will be indelibly etched into the consciousness of all who have been blessed by this symbiotic relationship.
Dr. Hinton will leave both institutions with confidence, fully assured that she will always be remembered for the seeds that she has sewn among her Bahamian ‘family’.
There is no doubt that she will forever be revered for the vibrant fruits that she has produced during her tenure, especially those whose roots are deeply embedded in the soil of The Bahamas.
• Philip C. Galanis is the managing partner of HLB Galanis and Co., Chartered Accountants, Forensic & Litigation Support Services. He served 15 years in Parliament. Please send your comments to email@example.com.