Xan-Xi Bethel spent 10 years never completing anything. Four times she enrolled in university and failed. She recalls watching as more time passed, with a kind of helpless bitterness as her dreams floundered and sputtered under the weight of enormous responsibility. She remembers being tired, sad, and frustrated with herself – and her father insisting that she try again. She did. Today, Bethel is among four remarkable students who shared messages of hope, perseverance and “Pelican Pride” as she addressed The University of the West Indies (UWI), Mona Campus’ virtual graduation ceremonies last week.
Bethel was among the quartet that has been dubbed the “Fantastic Four” for excelling in their studies and, as a result, was held up by the university as a “beacon of light” to their peers and the nation as they represented their faculties as valedictorians for The UWI Mona graduating class of 2021.
Bethel, valedictorian for the faculty of humanities and education, was awarded a First-Class Honours Bachelor of Arts in Literatures in English with minors in history and cultural studies.
Bethel was joined in the prestigious honor by Dr. Mikeann Channger for the faculty of medical sciences; Kensley Shay for the faculty of social sciences; and Jhenell Small for the faculty of law.
Each year, nominees are selected on academic performance, public speaking abilities, and involvement in extra and co-curricular activities. The selection committee looks for graduates who are creative and critical thinkers, good communicators, versed in technology, strong in their Caribbean identity, and guided by their ethics and values.
In her pre-recorded address, Bethel said she was committed to upholding the ideals and goals of her alma mater.
“My conduct and voice shall reflect the commitment to excellence of the ‘light rising from the west,’ as I fulfill my social and professional responsibilities and serve my community and region. I will strive to ensure that UWI’s place as a Caribbean icon – the catalyst for Caribbean development and leadership, is a legacy that I will proudly help build for generations,” she said.
Bethel, who is now employed at Aquinas College where she teaches English, literature, civics, and ethics and morality, has a story that is uplifting and motivating. After enrolling in the then-College of The Bahamas (current University of The Bahamas) in 2007 and dropping out, she went to The UWI in 2010, 2012 and again dropped out. She returned to UB in 2016, did well, but said she suffered, worked up the nerve to return to The UWI in 2019 and is now not just a graduate – but valedictorian.
“Studying in Jamaica was very hard for me,” said Bethel. “I took my whole family – my husband and four children – with me. I had limited resources and life was difficult. I’d failed at university a number of times before, so finishing top of my class made the struggle worth it. I struggled with crippling anxiety throughout the course, but in the end, I came out successful – thanks to constant support from friends and family, and, of course, a deep desire to succeed.”
Completing her degree during the pandemic puts Bethel in a unique position which allows her to be able to relate to her students as she went through what they are going through.
“Studying during a pandemic has been interesting and awful all at once. Human beings are not meant to be distanced like this – so being forced to study at home, and have reduced human interaction, is extremely challenging. Many people have been unable to cope with the isolation. Children in particular have been hardest hit. Knowing what it’s like to be removed from my colleagues at university has helped me to be more empathetic towards my students. They are desperate for social interaction, and have shared that their own times away from school have been terribly depressing.”
Bethel said she brings to the classroom an unfiltered worldview.
“I bring a sense of social awareness, civic responsibility, and an enduring passion for student success. Our children need to be challenged, and they need to be firmly grounded in their identity as Caribbean people, so that they can contribute as global citizens. Many of our students are not exposed to real-world issues, and thus form narrow world views, which does not lend to rich and rewarding lives. I hope to stand in that gap (between unknowing and curiosity), and inspire other teachers and community leaders to do the same.
Bethel is a product of the Bonamy-Munnings-Woodside families of Andros and Cat Island, as well as the Sands-Adderley-Beneby-Bethel families of Eleuthera and Long Island; as well as the Simmons-Hall families from Middle Caicos in the Turks and Caicos Islands.
She has always been an avid lover of literature. And said that as a child, she stayed up reading into the wee hours of the morning. In high school, her writing skills flourished under Terrance Pratt’s tutelage. This was a most exciting time for her – for learning, for reading, and for writing. She particularly enjoyed finding even more ingenious ways to hand hastily written essays in to Pratt, and his subsequent (unintentional) hilarious responses.
On one occasion, she recalled having secretly stuck the paper to the windshield of Pratt’s car and watched with bated breath as he tried to drive away before noticing the leaves of paper fluttering in the breeze.
She shares that with age, experience, and responsibility, her goals and dreams have shifted and are now wrapped in a deep desire to see radical change in her community. She asserts that literature is like magic, that it is unique and remarkable in that it exists and flourishes at the intersection of art, politics, resistance, history, and culture. Literature has the capacity to capture the very soul of ourselves, and read back to us, unapologetic and proud. She dreams of being one of those “make-plenty-trouble” type of teachers that foster a love of literature and a love of life in her students.