His fear wasn’t for his own physical safety; rather, it was fear for society.
“I had never before seen so many young men just sitting on a wall doing nothing, and it really frightened me,” Edwards, a 56-year-old native of St Catherine, told the Jamaica Observer.
How, he wondered, is the Jamaican nation to progress; how is crime to be contained if so many of its brightest and best are left without hope, without training and ultimately without employment.
Now, as head of the Seventh- day Adventist-run NCU, Edwards believes he is well placed to help the university play a lead role in changing the pattern, breaking the cycle of crime, ignorance and backwardness by finding ways to help thousands of young people gain tertiary training and education.
Edwards said that since taking over in January, he has been travelling the country, urging communities to help in funding education for their young people at NCU, which has its main campus in Mandeville and smaller facilities in Kingston, Montego Bay and St Ann. Communities, not least church-based ones, could underwrite scholarships and grants by setting up special education fund schemes.
“I’ve been to many communities where there are young people with six (CXC) subjects, sometimes more, and they are sitting at home, bright youngsters sitting at home. We don’t want that to happen because they are brilliant, so they can give the police a hard time. We want to get these young people into institutions like NCU early so they can express their creativity right here in a safe environment,” he said.
Edwards’ recruitment drive is aimed at increasing student numbers at NCU by 3,000 later this year to over 6,000. In recent years, numbers at NCU have fallen from over 6,000 to 3,200 currently, largely as a result of economic downturn which, he argued, has affected many other universities and colleges in Jamaica, the wider Caribbean, and elsewhere.
Central to the drive is the large Seventh-day Adventist community.
“We have a network of over 730 churches through the Seventh-day Adventist church system in Jamaica, and those churches are found in pretty much every nook and cranny of Jamaica and there are hundreds, thousands of people in these churches. The idea is that we would want to activate that network of churches to reach out to young people who are at risk — in communities where they are prone to being influenced by criminal elements — and the idea is that if we could bring those young people to NCU, we can make a big difference,” Edwards said.
“Our goal is to try to increase numbers by 3,000 come this fall. It’s an ambitious project. we are going to all the churches, we are advertising in different area, the young people are out there,” he said.
He spoke glowingly of a recent visit to the Trench Town Seventh-day Adventist church in southern St Andrew. “I spoke there and the people were welcoming, were on-board, they realise what we are trying to do here is in the national interest and they have pledged their support, and we are going all across the country with the same message,” he said.
As a privately funded institution, NCU does not get financial support from the Jamaican Government. Currently, average fees at NCU are said to hover around $400,000 per year, which Edwards claimed is at least three times better than comparable institutions in North America.
He is not restricting his recruitment drive to the Adventist Church since education is “about nation-building”. The Jamaican Government and the wider country was been invited to join the project towards helping young people achieve a “values-based, Christ-based education” and to take them away from the anti-social culture of crime and scamming, he said.
“We are inviting all Jamaica to partner with us and to see this as a crime-fighting, nation-building effort. From the moment I took office, I said, we are interested in having this university participate in solving the problems of the nation,” said Edwards.
He believes that NCU’s tradition of producing “leaders” going back more than 100 years — long before it was formally registered as a university when it was known first as West Indian Training School, then West Indian Training College and West Indies College — gives it a head start in terms of gaining the public trust as a potential game changer for young people.
“The evidence is there to show that the people who graduate from NCU are leaders in their communities and in society and everywhere we go that’s how the university sells itself,” said Edwards.
“That is why we say to people of good will in Jamaica who are serious about the crime issue, we are bringing the young people here so help us keep them here … partner with us” he added.
Critical to the recruitment expansion project is the provision of employment opportunities for students, not just to help them pay their bills but to enable job training and the development of entrepreneurship skills.
Edwards, a pharmacologist and dental surgeon, argued that NCU is well placed to become a major player in the fast-growing business process outsourcing (BPO) sector, thereby providing jobs for students. “We want to have technology parks that can provide services” for companies and agencies and he wants partnerships with global technology servers.
There is a plan to revive traditional industries, including a once thriving bakery. And agriculture is also being targeted as an industry with huge potential for student employment. Edwards noted that in recent months NCU had signed a memorandum of understanding with the Jamaica Social Investment Fund (JSIF) for the propagation of Irish potato seedlings.
As part of the agricultural drive, the NCU is hoping to develop 1,200 acres owned in St Elizabeth in partnership with local expertise.
“Our core business is education so we want special interests to partner with us,” he said. “We have the land, now bring us the expertise and investments that would provide jobs for our students, they will work in agriculture…” Edwards said.
“Young people need to work they don’t need to sit at home and come up with ideas about how to scam people, all of us, owe it to this generation and younger one s coming up to provide them with the opportunities to work,” he added.
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