An American in Preston: counselling students displaced by Hurricane Irma

Sue Keenan shares her experiences of counselling medical students displaced from the American University of the Caribbean by Hurricane Irma

July 1, 2018
Damage from Hurricane Maria
Source: iStock

“I just want to be the best student I can be,” said a first-semester student from California, bounding into the office looking like a surfer dude with his beanie hat. His enthusiasm and energy were great even though he’d been through trauma and was now studying in a new city in a new country. 

“I’m not OK,” was the contrasting opening statement from another student. She was finding it much harder to cope with surviving a Category 5 hurricane and then being uprooted to the other side of the world.

For the past few months, in addition to my role as senior lecturer in teacher training at the University of Central Lancashire, I have been working with the students of the American University of the Caribbean medical school, providing them with academic counselling and study skills support. Hurricane Irma ripped through the island of Sint Maarten, where they were based, on 6 September 2017, causing devastation on the island. Homes and offices were torn apart and the island’s infrastructure decimated. In just a few days, through fast negotiation, the University of Central Lancashire opened its doors and welcomed the AUC staff and students to share their Preston campus.

The AUC students came from all over the US, Canada and further afield, many with English as a second language. I’ve met students from Texas, Chicago, New York, Toronto and Delhi who were all trying to process their experience.

Sometimes students booked to see me, sometimes they just dropped by. They all had their own stories. Some were understandably still traumatised after the hurricane and were receiving professional help from AUC with this, but the shake-up had completely thrown their study habits and routines. The AUC was using lecture halls and lab facilities when they were available, meaning that their classes took place in the late afternoon and early evening and all day at weekends. They had Monday and Tuesday as their weekend instead of the regular Saturday and Sunday.

One student, Francesca, talked non-stop for an hour. Out poured the frustrations of the last few months. Francesca, a mature student, had moved to the UK with her husband and two children when evacuated from the island with the AUC. She had found a home, paid a six-month deposit and settled her children into a local school, to be told unexpectedly that she was to go back to the island for her next semester as the AUC buildings had been repaired. She was enjoying settling into life in the UK and wasn’t ready to go back yet. She didn’t want more upheaval, more unknowns.

Brett, like many others, was struggling with the weather. Northern England in November can be grey, dull and damp. Brett had chosen the Caribbean because he loved the sun and blue sky.

Working with the AUC has been a wonderful opportunity to look through a window to another world, but more importantly, my time working with the AUC has made me think again about students and learning. I’ve been lucky enough to work in a wide range of education settings including schools in the UK and overseas, prisons and FE colleges, and it may be an old cliché but students’ needs and interests are pretty much the same the world over. The old teacher training favourite, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, rang true.

It didn’t matter that these AUC students were extremely bright medical students, they had just as much need for a sense of belonging as anyone. Although my role with them was to discuss study strategies and help them find the best way to retain knowledge and find motivation, what many of them needed was simply to check in, to make human contact with someone. They needed to make sense of what had happened to them and try to establish a new routine.  

This was definitely the case for Matt. He had come to see me when a test hadn’t gone well and he wanted to talk it through. He then made regular appointments to see me twice a week. It wasn’t really the study support that he needed, it was the accountability; having that appointment ensured that he did the study he needed to.

It wasn’t so simple for John, who had completed all five semesters and failed his final comprehensive test. He came to see me, still in a state of shock and bewilderment. We talked about strategies to prepare for a resit in 10 days. We met regularly and he became calmer and managed to regain his focus. But it wasn’t to be. John failed the exam for the second time. Luckily, he has one more opportunity that AUC offered: an intense course of tutoring and a final attempt to take the test in Texas.

The AUC offices in Preston are pretty quiet now. There are just the fifth-semesters left, with a few faculty staff. The offices that once rang out with American accents are pretty quiet. There are fewer students at my door. It may just be to check in, to talk, to have some new ideas or confirm that what they are doing is OK.

It’s been a privilege to spend time with the AUC staff and students. Their tenacity in coping with crisis has been incredible. They’ve lost homes and possessions in Sint Maarten and made new temporary homes in hotel rooms and rented accommodation in Preston. They’ve kept going and, despite setbacks, the majority of students have passed their exams and are continuing their journeys to become doctors. Perhaps one day they’ll tell the tale at a patient’s bedside of where they did some of their training, as an American in Preston.

Sue Keenan is a senior lecturer in initial teacher education at the University of Central Lancashire.

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