The Tracy-Ann Hyman Story: Brilliant Beyond The Jamaican Classroom

In life, people face obstacles in different ways. Much is said about the obvious: poverty, illness, disease and death. Not enough is said about the more subtle ways in which challenges can present themselves: in a mental or psychological block incurred through the unkind or misguided words of one person, or through the subtle, insistent seed of a suggestion implanted in the mind through an institution or system. Tracy-Ann Hyman is the CEO and ideator behind Skolastik Oasis Caribbean, a company with the mandate of helping persons identify funding for higher education. Her story is one of triumph over the stereotypes and limitations of a traditional educational system, and how she has used her own experience to fuel her determination to help others rise to their highest educational potential.

Imagine a class of 15 children. They all achieve over 85% averages, but there are only five prizes available to that class, so only the top five children get awarded. They, in turn, get all the praise, admiration and commendations, and get highlighted as the brightest students in the class. Does not getting a gift mean that the other 10 students did not do well? Does not being seen as ‘the brightest’ in the class negate the fact that these other students are actually bright?

Jamaican entrepreneur and scholar, Tracy-Ann Hyman, believes the tragedy is not in the other 10 students’ performance, but in the fact that there are not enough resources to reward their efforts. She laments this scarcity of resources in the Jamaican tertiary education system, and believes that this scarcity has led to a system that often leaves perfectly capable and brilliant students feeling inadequate and subpar.

Hyman acknowledges that education in Jamaica is highly competitive. Speaking from her own experience, she recalls a time when she did not see herself as ‘bright’ because she was repeatedly told she was an ‘average’ student. “We like to group students here in classes: bright, middle, dunce … . In so doing, we place limitations on them. That is what happened to me, and it had a [negative] psychological and mental impact on me. The people with the highest marks would get the rewards, but that didn’t mean I wasn’t a top person in my own right.”

Epiphany in University

Hyman traces her educational epiphany to her first years of university. “I’m a late bloomer,” she admits, “Is when university take off I realised I had a brain!” She smiles as she adds, “I would have laughed at you if you had told me that I would be doing a PhD and winning awards.”

But she is. Despite her slow start, Hyman has charted a successful academic and career path which includes a diploma in business administration from the University of Technology, a first degree in hotel and tourism management, a masters in sustainability science with a focus on tourism and climate change – which she did on a scholarship in Japan, and postgraduate research work funded by a 2012 Fulbright Nexus scholarship. She was a LACEEP (Latin American and Caribbean Environmental Economics Program) research fellow (2014-2017), a World Social Science fellow (2015-2016), and is currently pursuing her PhD at the University of the West Indies, Mona on an EKACDM (Enhancing Knowledge and Application of Comprehensive Disaster Management) scholarship.

“People must not be limited or take on the limitations placed on them by a system,” Hyman asserts. As far as she is concerned, her experience proves that even slow starters can become great academic successes.

This conviction has led her to start Skolastik Oasis Caribbean, a company through which she helps persons find financial support for their tertiary studies. Her company’s motto, ‘Relieving global funds from the pain of insufficient uptake’, sums up her perspective on the possibilities for tertiary studies globally: the resources that are not available in Jamaica are available to Jamaicans elsewhere, and her mandate is to help them find these resources and realise their fullest educational potential. Since its inception in 2014, Skolastik has provided guidance seminars, application support, and scholarship matching services for higher education.

Says Hyman, “Skolastik is positioned to open people’s eyes to the possibilities of study elsewhere, because Jamaica’s tertiary education system cannot hold everyone in it. I have accessed almost J$17 million in international scholarships for myself and clients, so Skolastik is strategic. We’re here to help persons find the right path and right financing option for that path … to find ways to finance you to get where you need to go.”

Question and answer

diGJamaica got to sit down with Tracy-Ann Hyman and pick her brain about her education and career journey, as well as to get her thoughts on the education system in Jamaica:

On her very slow start in realising her own potential in education:

  1. She applied for law school in 1995 – the Normal Manley International Law School at the University of the West Indies, Mona – and was turned down. That was when she decided to go to UTech to do a Diploma in Business Administration.
  2. Surprisingly, she got through for law school afterward, but had already decided to study hotel and tourism management in 1998. She spent one year in Jamaica and two years in Bahamas completing that three-year course, and was already in The Bahamas when she got a call that she got through for law, so she did not bother.

On her experiences in work and in travel:

  1. She worked in food and beverage and restaurant management in the hotel industry.
  2. She got exposure to environmental management, and got involved in solid waste disposal, water or energy conservation, and tourist appreciation for coral reef, while on the job.
  3. This prompted a focus shift to the environment.
  4. She got the prime minister’s award for environmental preservation, and her initiative got her hotel Green Globe-certified and won them a Jamaica Hotel and Tourist Association award for the accomplishment.
  5. These experiences prompted her decision to get further education development in that area.
  6. She applied to do her Masters in Japan in sustainability science with focus on tourism and climate change, but she didn’t really want to go to Japan. Her dream had always been to go to Europe, where she had applied for a scholarship in environment management. She didn’t hear back from the European school, but her back-up plan, Japan, came through.
  7. She was a missionary volunteer with Wycliffe, where she helped with promotions and teaching people how to read the patois Bible.

On important epiphanies in her life:

  1. Getting the Fulbright Nexus Scholarship was a turning point in Tracy’s life. She says: “After getting the Fulbright, nothing is hard again. That was when I realised that I can do this, and there was no more limitation.”
  2. Her experiences in other foreign countries have also informed her  perspectives on life. While in Japan, she got to visit Italy and the UK.  Tracy says when she went to Rome, she was bombarded by beggars called ‘the gypsies’, who were descended from the slaves of Roman emperors. This sight expanded her awareness, she says, of the fact that poverty exists at deep levels even in the most developed countries.
  3. “Japan was where my black consciousness arose,” she says. “That was when I got into identity. When you’re in a foreign culture, you realise you’re different. So I became more Afrocentric or African-conscious.”

On Skolastik Oasis Caribbean:

  • Tracy’s Fulbright scholarship ended in 2013. This was a turning point for her: “Somewhere between the programme end and January, I said to myself, ‘I am always helping people with their curriculum vitae and resumes for free. And people always tell me what they want to do and I always find information (stumble on) and send them and they are always so thankful. I realised I had a good ear for listening to what people wanted, and finding money for it. And I decided to turn this into a business.”

On what she is proudest of:

  • Where Skolastik is concerned, Tracy is extremely happy whenever people write back in testimonials to say the information they received from her seminars was helpful.
  • Three experiences stand out in her memory:
    (1) One client was physically challenged and Tracy started mentoring her in December 2016. They client applied for the Fulbright scholarship and was shortlisted in the top six. Says Tracy: “That means I have some relevance and actually make a difference.”
    (2) Tracy also sat on a scholarship panel, and got the opportunity to switch hats and see from a first-hand perspective what the selection process was like.
    (3) A student from another Caribbean Island was able to pursue a fully funded short-term research exchange at the UWI, contributing o their PhD in Linguistics.

On the future:

  • Now that she’s in it, Tracy is looking at who are funders of education.
  • She says she wants to establish a foundation to offer scholarships to persons who need them, and, she believes she is headed in that direction

On the school system in Jamaica:

  • Tracy says in her time, they grouped students in classes: bright, middle and dunce. She was placed in the average class, which made her believe that she was not bright. This, she said, had a psychological and mental impact on her. “It’s now that I’m getting older that things are happening academically,” she admits. And this makes her all the more determined to help others realise the need to free themselves from limitations that under-resourced systems may have placed on them.
  • “People say we’re taking human resources away from Jamaica, but my answer is that we need to find creative ways to get them back. If we can’t get them back with certain standards of living, don’t expect them to come back. Approximately 7 % of university-age students between the ages of 18 and 44 years access tertiary education. UWI and UTech only represent 7% of people who want post-secondary education. What about the rest? Skolastik is placed to open people’s eyes and because Jamaica cannot hold everyone in it.”
  • To deal with the issue of people who have been granted national scholarships running off, Tracy suggests “some form of bonding”. She says Jamaica can also “arrange for non-residential scholarships with funders, therefore students would stay in Jamaica, do the work, but would get funded from international donors.” She adds: “Or get students to do research that involves Jamaica. Jamaica also needs representation out there. If you want people to stay here, create facilities and resources to get people to stay here.”
  • Tracy notes that “Research is less that one per cent of Jamaica’s GDP. We can’t advance without research.” She strongly suggests we change that culture, and start to put greater emphasis on research.
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