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Gillian: Her story of inspiration

Sandra Downes

Gillian: Her story of inspiration

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She is the epitome of the mature student. After entering the University of the West Indies at Cave Hill at age 40, Gillian Downes-Alleyne was able to do it all.

She walked away with a first-class honours degree in history and the Elsa Goveia Scholarship.

There was jubilation along the way too, when she copped the first level prize in History; little did she know then that the second and third year prizes would follow.    

One would think she must have been a full-time student to achieve all this, but Gillian was in fact balancing work, marriage, children, home and church, while being a part-time student.

Just how did she manage it all? “By God’s grace,” she remarked.

“There were so many times that I asked myself what I was doing here? Especially on cold, rainy nights when I would have normally been at home, the children already fed and I in bed, reading.”

“Why are you doing this at this age? But then part of it was for my children; so they could see that no matter what age, you can achieve something; as well as I wanted to.

“And I learnt time management, oh yes, that was a lesson well-learnt. I made sure that at least one hour every day was spent studying, outside of regular class times.”

Recalling some of those time management skills, Gillian sometimes “got home at 9 p.m., put a chicken in the oven, bathed and studied; when the chicken was done I knew it was time to go to bed.”

Her love for history began many years ago as a student at Combermere School; a love instilled by history teacher Charlie Pilgrim with his “distinctive style” and then built upon by Mr Eversley and Mr Gittens, who both had a way of bringing history to life.

“I always liked stories . . . and old people telling me stories.”

It stands to reason that she would pursue a degree in history. But after being admitted to the university in 1999, Gillian had her first child that year and deferred her studies.

Encouraged by a friend to study library science at Barbados Community College in 2009, her love for history and research was rekindled.

A decade passed before she reapplied and was accepted in 2010; walking into an environment where many of her classmates were half her age.

As for her experience at the Cave Hill Campus, Gillian describes it as “enlightening and inspiring”.

But just how much did studying history change or influence her?

“It gave me more information especially about Africa. It enlightened me and gave me a respect for and a perspective of people my own colour. When you watch television, Africans killing one another is often the image seen, always ready to fight; but then you study it and you understand that if you come into a man’s territory, set up boundaries for him, dislocate families, enforce your culture and way of life; then you see the reason behind their behaviour. It makes you question what people put out there.

“You think our foreparents wanted to come here? It’s not that I want to bring back the journey but don’t be dismissive of it. I can imagine a mother seeing her daughter being raped, her son beaten, her husband emasculated . . . it was hard,” Gillian explained.

As Gillian raves on about history, she can’t seem to contain her excitement about the subject.

“When I learnt about history at school many moons ago, it was taught from a post-colonial perspective at the time but much has changed since then;  so you heard about Columbus, and kings and so on . . . . But when you go to UWI, for example, you may examine the Bussa Rebellion and ask whether it was really a rebellion or a war? You are fighting against someone who is enforcing their will on you. So Bussa is then seen as a general instead of a rebel or criminal. And the author becomes just as important as the material.”

“You also come to realise that women played a great role in history; they did much more than people think,” Gillian added.

“Nor should we be dismissive of the 1937 riots or the right to vote. People lost their lives for it. Plus it was a springboard for blacks attaining the right to vote here.”

One of her defining moments during her studies came while doing research for her thesis, based on the impact of the apartheid regime in South Africa on Barbadian society and politics. That was when Gillian realised that a Barbadian seaman, Milton King, was killed in South Africa during apartheid, for standing up for another black man. King was beaten beyond recognition while in police custody, and died soon after. Meeting and interviewing King’s grandson proved to be an eye-opener for the history student.

As for her views on the importance of history, Gillian said, “I think that anyone going to Cave Hill should do a couple of history courses. Everything has a history. Find out something about yourself. Business places are paying people to write their history. It lends to their social value and yours.”

Gillian also has high praise for the entire history department at UWI, particulary the assessibility of the lecturers.

“You can call them with your queries. They lend you their books and they encourage you to go further. They all have an open door policy and they take time to explain things to you.”

The journey was “not easy” by any means, though.

Gillian therefore expressed appreciation to her husband Trevor for helping to care for their home and two sons, Jerrell 15, and  Jorryn 11. As well as for all the nights he bundled the children into the car and travelled from their St James home to the university to pick her up.

Her former boss, Dr Jennifer Campbell, was also instrumental in allowing Gillian the time she needed to attend classes, while she tried wherever possible to schedule her classes around her work hours.   

So even with the frustration of being asked many times “What are you going to do with history” or “There’s no future in history,” Gillian  is persevering and is now pursuing her MPhil  in history, at Cave Hill.

Her response to those who think studying history is a “dead end,” is simply that “research needs to be done and people need to write whether it is HIStory or HERstory”.

“There are still social issues of class, race, gender, changes within the society over the years and that are very relevant today which need to be written.”