This interview features Simone Townsend, MBHS past student ,Head Girl 2014-15, former Youth Ambassador to CARICOM and Project Manager at Junior Achievement Jamaica.
The interviewer is Howard Jackson.
HJ: Simone, what can you tell us about your early life, where you were born, early school, and what you enjoyed doing as a child?
ST: I was born in St Thomas, and I went to Grants Pen Primary school. As a child I think what I enjoyed the most was reading and writing. I liked English Language to a great extent. I grew up as any ordinary child. I lived in a nuclear family for some time, then my parents broke up, and I lived with my aunt. She had a great positive influence on my life growing up. For her it was always God, education and family, in that order. A lot of who I have become I owe to her.
Also, my mother and father (though they broke up and lived separately) had a big influence on me. I can say, I wasn't short on positive influences growing up.
Fun fact, I lived literally 5 minutes from school for my entire high school tenure. So, I could wake up 7:30 and reach school for 7:55 AM! (laugh).
HJ: What years did you attend MBHS and what are some of your lasting memories of those years?
ST: I started MBHS in 2008, and I graduated in 2015. One of my most lasting memories was when we created the MBHS Newsletter. It was important to me because that is when I started to cultivate some leadership skills and disciplines which went on to help me in university. Another lasting memory is starting Morant Bay High Schools Finest. The same group of students that started the newsletter decided to introduce a pageant competition and that taught me so much about entrepreneurship, event planning and things of that nature.
One other thing that I want to highlight from my years at MBHS is just how invested our teachers were in our personal development and not just our formal education. I remember particularly our CAPE History class. As much as it was about History, it was also about our personal development, our growth and preparing us for what was ahead.
A number of teachers contributed toward our overall, holistic development, not just academics. A particular teacher motivated me to be involved in some clubs, and I found after high school the importance of having that rounded mindset, that it’s not just about getting good grades. It’s about holistic development. That was very important for me to learn, though I didn’t apply it as much as I should have.
HJ. Which teachers had the greatest impact on you at MBHS ?
ST: Some that made an impact were Ms. Chambers, Ms. Welcome, Ms. Morgan Marriott, Ms Diana Cross, Mrs. Hyatt, Mrs. Coates, Mrs. Hyman. Those teachers had a lasting impact on my personality and on my development.
HJ. Leaving school and moving on to adult life, be it further education or the working world, is typically a tough adjustment for most people. What was your experience like in the years immediately after leaving high school?
ST: Well I don’t think it was very hard for me to adjust to university life, particularly because I went to 6th form. You are already acclimatized to the workload of university by going through the 6th form program. I think I was well prepared to handle the workload and environment at UWI.
However, one adjustment that I struggled to make in university was balancing my social and academic life. One of my regrets is that I focused almost exclusively on academics to the detriment of social life and networking.
My greatest challenge was moving out of university and into the working world. Moving from a student to a professional is not an easy adjustment, nobody really prepares you for that transition that comes with the professional environment. It was definitely a learning curve for me, and it still is, but it gets easier as you learn the ropes.
HJ: Tell us about your time as Youth Ambassador to CARICOM, the places it took you, and how that experience has impacted you.
ST: I was appointed CARICOM Youth Ambassador in 2017, I served a two year term. My tenure taught me a lot about what my niche passions are. Youth work is a very broad area but in being a CARICOM Youth ambassador you get to zero in on what your main areas of focus will be. I chose Youth and Adolescent Health, Financial Literacy, Work Readiness and Entrepreneurship for young people.
Being the Youth Ambassador to CARICOM gives you the opportunity to advocate for young people to regional bodies and entities. You get to play a very significant role in the decision making process for CARICOM Youths.
I was invited to participate in the Caribbean Congress on Youth and Adolescent Health in Trinidad and Tobago. This was a land mark congress, the first of its kind in the Caribbean. It brought together speakers, thinkers and practitioners in Adolescent Health not just in the Caribbean but in the world. I had the opportunity to sit at the table with representatives from the WHO, Caribbean Vulnerable Communities Coalition (CVCC), Pan Caribbean Partnership against HIV and Aids (PANCAP) and the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO). I got to give my input on how I thought Youth and Adolescent Health policies should be shaped in the Caribbean.
Before this, I participated in a steering committee conference in St. Lucia that was sponsored by PANCAP to create audio-visual messages for teenagers and young adults around safe sex and HIV/AIDS awareness.
Being a CARICOM Youth Ambassador was a rewarding experience. It’s one of the reasons that I decided to continue my involvement in youth work and community service. I ended up applying for and being employed at an International Non-Governmental Organization in Jamaica called Junior Achievement Jamaica. My efforts here are centred on preparing young people for the world of work, teaching them the skills and tools they need to become entrepreneurs and educating them about financial literacy.
HJ: In your travels you must have had the opportunity to meet ambitious young people. In what ways are they similar or different from young Jamaicans like yourself?
ST: That’s a great question! A lot of my travels in my official capacity as CARICOM Youth Ambassador (CYA) were regional travels. I have done a lot of non-official/personal travels to Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore and also to South Africa.
What you’d probably find interesting Howard, is that a lot of young people think alike! We have the same desires, same ambitions, similar experiences and so on. You would think because we are from different parts of the world we would be hard pressed to find commonalities but that’s actually not the case. Even to date, I still maintain contact with persons, who have grown to become really great friends, from my travels overseas.
HJ: Your role at Junior Achievement Jamaica is also one in which you work with young people, most of whom are students. What has it been like so far? You appear to be very excited about the work you are doing.
ST: My role as program manager at Junior Achievement Jamaica has been very rewarding. It has afforded me opportunities to touch young people’s lives in a way that is tangible and adds real value to them. Some of my most rewarding moments have been while managing the Scotia Bank Road to Success program, where I get to travel across Jamaica and teach young people about making the right career choices which align with their strengths, passions, dreams and ambitions.
One of the most fulfilling aspects of my job is seeing how heavily invested in our students corporate Jamaica is. All of the projects I managed are sponsored in some way by an institution in corporate Jamaica. I have managed projects for Ernst and Young (an international accounting firm with a branch in Jamaica) and Scotiabank.
I have also worked with international entities such as Sanford Harmony (a international social and emotional learning program based in the USA) as well as the Junior Achievement branch in Europe to bring a higher quality form of learning to our students here in Jamaica. I’m very satisfied with the work I do.
HJ: If you could speak to the 14 year old version of yourself who was still in school at MBHS, what would be your advice to her, knowing what you now know?
ST: I would say “Relax, breathe and have faith; things will unfold in ways that are even more beautiful and meaningful than if you had planned it yourself. Have faith in your potential. You are going to be fine.”
The 14 year old me was very anxious and nervous about the future and life in general. I would tell her that there is nothing that she won’t be able to, with Jesus, handle. You will be fine.
HJ: My final question is an existential one. I think it’s fair to say that we have struggled over the years to get younger graduates involved in the alumni community. That is not a sustainable situation as any organization which is not renewing itself will eventually fade.
I would like to get your views on how you think we can get past students of your generation and the ones to follow you more involved in the MBHS alumni community and in giving back to MBHS in general?
ST: I think one thing that could help is a formal request being made asking younger graduates to join the alumni. I don’t recall, correct me if I am wrong Howard, ever being asked to join the alumni in a direct way. Maybe like a direct message saying“Hi, we know you are a past student, would you like to join the MBHS alumni?”
I think a lot of my peers would be happy to join. I know a lot of my peers are proud to be MBHS alumni and are looking for meaningful ways to contribute to the establishment that nurtured them from adolescent and pre-adolescent to young adults. They have their MBHS bumper sticker. I don’t think that there is any reluctance to join, they just don’t know how to join the alumni community.
Also, I think, there is this perception that the alumni is for people living overseas. So that’s also one of the issues, that perception.
The alumni may be doing a lot of work, but it’s not seen often. I know that when I was at MBHS the alumni was doing a lot of work in terms of scholarships, etc. I am sure my peers would be interested in giving back that way, or even by way of a mentor.
HJ: Simone thanks for spending the time to allow us to get to know you better, and all the best for the future.