JUNCTION, St Elizabeth — Originally from Morningside in south St Elizabeth, Dr Jerome Miller-Vaz has successfully charted her educational path through resilience and commitment.
Though her academic performance at Junction Secondary and Hampton high schools was undistinguished, she has more than made up for that down the years.
She now boasts a Bachelor of Science degree in international relations and management from the University of the West Indies (UWI), a Master of Business Administration from Nova Southeastern University and a Doctorate of Management in organisational leadership from the University of Phoenix.
Dr Miller-Vaz is now en route to achieving teacher training certification from the highly respected British training institution City and Guilds.
Without the resources for full-time studies, her post-high school academic success was achieved through part-time and distance learning.
"All of my studies were part-time because I couldn't afford it. I did almost every course there is before I touched the (first) degree," she said.
Currently in charge of the UWI Open Campus Western Zone sites — in St Elizabeth, St Ann, St James, Hanover, Westmoreland, and Trelawny — she is dedicated to helping others similarly aiming for academic success through "laddering".
The Open Campus is a merger of the Tertiary Level Institutions Unit, the UWI Distance Education Centre, the School of Continuing Studies, and the Board of Non-Campus Countries and Distance Education.
Formally launched in 2008, the Open Campus has locations across the Caribbean and according to Miller-Vaz is considered the fourth campus of the UWI, which has "brick and mortar" campuses at Mona in Jamaica, St Augustine in Trinidad, and Cave Hill in Barbados.
"We are the flexible arm of UWI," Miller-Vaz said. "We take the education to the people. We are employing a combination of all strategies. We train people on the job. We offer blended, face-to-face and online (training)."
Among the offerings are pre-university courses at the Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate (CSEC) and Caribbean Advanced Proficiency Examination (CAPE) levels, short courses, diplomas, associate, undergraduate and post graduate degrees.
Miller-Vaz said that a "rich mix" of persons are now benefitting from the programmes in the Western Zone.
Prior to moving to its home at Pines Plaza in Junction in September, the UWI Open Campus, St Elizabeth, operated from a temporary location at Lititz, close to the south Manchester border.
While at Lititz, the institution had its first batch of graduates in July this year. Staff from Munro College and persons from the Junction Development area were certified in supervisory management. Fisherfolk from Great Bay in south west St Elizabeth were trained in capacity building.
Miller-Vaz is particularly impressed with the end result of the short-term sessions with the fishers, which included basic marketing skills, environmentally sustainable fishing, communication skills, and customer service, financial management and basic information technology.
"For all five sessions it either met their expectations or above what was expected. (They) said they would tell others about it," she said of the feedback.
As she continues discussion to open a location in Oracabessa, St Mary, a partnership was formed with Oracabessa High School which resulted in fishers also being trained in that parish.
Being able to have a UWI Open Campus location in St Elizabeth is, for Dr Miller-Vaz, "divine intervention".
"I have a passion for where I (was) born. I am so happy to be giving back. I see it as a serious motivation," she said.
The Western Zone head said that the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries gave a grant of $5.5 million to drive the initial set-up of locations in St Elizabeth and St Mary.
Miller-Vaz, whose educational roots were also shaped at Ballards Valley and Morningside Primary, believes her over 30 years working at the University of the West Indies, among her other experiences, have prepared her for her current role.
She has developed way beyond her first job at the UWI as a clerk/typist in 1977 and now sees her ability to give back as her birthright.
"This is my legacy," she said.
Miller-Vaz travels to each location within the Western Zone to get the job done. The institution in Junction has three other employees, two of whom are studying. She said that she encourages such efforts.
"I believe people need to be empowered. I fight for these opportunities at UWI to the detriment of my own job. I am very passionate about giving students the best student service," she said.
Miller-Vaz credits her "strong" mother Bereta Miller-Shand for instilling in her the value of education and also the support of her sister Ethel Miller-Douglas who was like a "second mother".
Having been able to balance raising three children with all her other activities, Miller-Vaz can attest to some of the struggles of the working adult student and give useful advice.
"You have to want to do it. Never aim low. The moment you take your eyes off the prize you are going to drop off the ladder. My journey has not been easy, but [it has been] rewarding," she said.
She identified the immediate infrastructural and equipment needs at the facility in Junction as a videoconferencing room, additional computers for the lab, and a generator which has been made necessary because of frequent power outages in the area.
Miller-Vaz is also focused on the social responsibilities of the institution.
"Part of my community thrust for the coming academic year is to offer training to at least one student complimentary at the pre-university (level) or in a professional development/short course," she said.