In April 2021 Gabriel McNaughton was in her bed one night when she felt a lump on her breast. Worriedly, she called her father Vick McNaughton and told him. Worry multiplied because there is a history of breast cancer in the family — her maternal cousins all had lumps in their breasts that they had to remove.
At the time McNaughton was a second-year student at Caribbean Maritime University (CMU). She went to many doctors and did ultrasounds to find out what it was. She was told that it was not cancerous.
A month later the lump grew, multiplied, and started to hurt. Eventually, she had to do surgery to remove what turned out to be more than one. The earliest date she could get was a week before her exams. She was diagnosed with tubular adenoma and proliferative breast disease.
"I took it nevertheless, though I was worried about the surgery while studying in efforts to pass my exams. This was in fear of sitting out a year of school. For me to do the surgery I had to use the semester three tuition to pay for my surgery. I did it and the surgery was successful," 22-year-old McNaughton told the Jamaica Observer last Tuesday.
"That summer I went abroad to stay with family members and to heal properly. I managed to finish all my courses and final project successfully in the summer. It was not an easy road, but I did it. I have now graduated with a Bachelor of Science Degree in Marine Transportation and preparing to set sail on a vessel very soon," she said, proudly.
But, before that, she had no idea where money would come from to pay the rest of her tuition after her surgery. She had just returned from the Work and Travel programme, after deciding "to help out in some way". She and her father struggled financially, and through the programme she earned enough money to pay her second-year tuition and fees to go on work and travel the next year.
But the money was used up for the surgery, and plans to get to the problem were obliterated by the novel coronavirus pandemic.
"All my dad had to worry about was my rent and food, so it was a little easier for him. I thought I had it figured out at this point. The plan was to go to work and travel every year so I could pay my tuition, but God had other plans. All I could do was pray," she told the Sunday Observer.
"I went into my e-mail and saw that they were assisting students with tuition and tried my luck. Weeks passed and I did not receive a response. After my surgery I was at school when I got a call from a Florida number saying they wanted to help. It was the American Caribbean Maritime Foundation (ACMF) offering to pay the outstanding amount of my tuition, which they did shortly after. I was able to complete my third school year successfully. From being daddy's little girl to an aspiring ship captain."
McNaughton was born and raised in Santa Cruz, St Elizabeth. Her education began at Santa Cruz Preparatory School and then she went to Hampton School in the hills of Malvern, where she spent six years.
When she finished fifth form she said she knew she wanted to do something in the marine field. She didn't want to attend sixth form, but did it regardless because she was not completely sure what was the next step.
McNaughton then went to the career advisor at Hampton and was handed a booklet for the marine engineering programme at CMU.
"I applied for the marine engineering programme without telling either of my parents. I started doing my research and I found out this was a cadet programme. I doubted myself. I then found the courage to tell my parents that I applied for this programme. At first we were deciding if I should just finish sixth form, but after I got that acceptance letter everything changed," she told the Sunday Observer.
"This is where I found out what the programme entailed. It required me to sign a drug test consent form; do a police criminal record; a medical report, not a regular school medical; and lastly, a two weeks training programme."
Fast-forward to the start of the two-week training programme, also known as indoctrination, in Port Royal. McNaughton said she "was going in with a heavy heart, not knowing what to expect".
When she arrived she learnt that her hair was supposed to be in a bun, not be touching her collar and should not be more than 8cm in diameter. She said she had no idea what that meant, but tried to fix it.
During those two weeks, McNaughton was required to do marching, saluting, push-ups, and other exercises that she had never done prior.
"When the first week finished I decided I couldn't do it. I gave up. My hands were scorched from doing push-ups in the sun, I had no appetite, I lost weight, we only got five minutes to shower, and the list continues. This was something I never expected. I knew it was going to be rough, but not this rough. I left because I really could not manage it. I packed my stuff and my ride came for me," she related.
While driving from the CMU's main campus on to Palisadoes, she said her life flashed before her eyes.
"When I saw the ships, I knew this is what I wanted to do. I wanted to work on a ship. I wanted to travel the world. I went home, regardless, because in this programme they do not let anyone back in after you quit. I got up the next morning in regret, saying to myself, 'What have I done?' I then got a number from a friend and started making some calls begging them to let me back in," she recalled.
When she was approved, she immediately got on a ride right back to Kingston the same day. With a different type of motivation, McNaughton said she completed the training "with ease".
"When I finished the training something spoke to me and said, 'Switch to marine transportation, you are going to become a ship captain.' I didn't question it. I went to the relevant department and did just that," she recalled.
McNaughton said all financial burdens were left on her father.
"He told me he would support me with everything that I needed. He knew it was expensive, but he decided to do it anyway. Overall, tuition was almost $1 million per year. He ensured it was always paid, coupled with the fact that I was never short of clothes or food. After the separation, he started over completely while trying to fund my education. He used the little he had and kept turning it over with his trucks and other equipment. I cannot stress how hard it was for us in the first year," she said.
McNaughton said life at school took grit, dedication, and major focus.
"We had physical training on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays, and we didn't leave school until 1800 hours (6:00) in the afternoons. Some evenings I didn't get home until 7:00 pm due to the taxi issue at the CMU campus. Most evenings when I got home, I was so tired. I didn't even have time to cook dinner. I just had time to bathe and wash my uniforms for the next day because we were only provided with two brown uniforms for daily wear."
When there were assignments to be completed or studying to be done for upcoming tests, there was added pressure.
"Sometimes I had to stay up until 3:00 am to wake back up at 5:00 am to 5:30 am to get ready for school and to get to the parade on time. If I lost more than 25 points or more in one week, it was required as a form of punishment that I attended school on a Saturday to do beach clean-ups and other maritime-related tasks. I tried my best not to let this happen, but sometimes it couldn't have been avoided. I managed to complete the first year successfully."
Today, she said having her degree means more that just getting the physical certificate.
"The hard work and challenges it came with made it more valuable. I've dreamt of this moment and to see it play out in reality gives an emotional feeling. I'm now qualified and competent to start my journey as a navigation officer and without my degree this wouldn't have been possible."