Moving Back to Jamaica

A blog about my Move Back to Jamaica after 20+ years of living in the US. Most of the articles focus on the period from 2005-2009 when the transition was new, and at it's most challenging.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

The Returnee's Advantage

It's been hard to put into words one advantage that many of us who have returned to live in Jamaica possess by virtue of having lived abroad. Up until now, it's been a case of "I know it when I see it," but beyond that .... I could hardly explain why I would hire someone who has lived and worked abroad more readily than someone who has never left.

I know that the quality of professional / academic classroom instruction has something to do with it, but the recent proliferation of foreign universities operating in Jamaica has not by itself, made that critical difference to its graduates (from my limited point of view.) If Harvard or Stanford came to Jamaica, they would undoubtedly provide a better academic education than Nova Southeastern, but the point of paying a Harvard graduate US$100k per year starting out is not only because they had better teachers.

Granted, the admission standards at the top MBA schools that are the best in the world guarantee that the students who get degrees are among the best.

However, I believe that what the best schools offer that is the most important is neither the quality of instruction, nor the privilege of being recognized as one of the best.

I have interacted with a few 20-somethings who, having grown up in Jamaica and its lower standards, are missing some of the things that I associate with the best young people. If you do not know what the following mean and you are over 50, then I am not too concerned: blogs, wikis,, jpegs, mp3's, myspace, flickr. However, if you are in your 20's and are a young professional, and have NO idea.... then I get really worried that the world is leaving you behind at a time when you, by virtue of your youth, should be ahead.

I remember using email for the first time when I was a college junior in 1987. Email use was driven by young people, as were web pages, porno and just about everything the internet is used for today. The cutting edge is really owned by the younger, risk-taking minds rather than the old, more stable professonals, according to Richard Florida, author of "The Rise of the Creative Class."

I also remember a friend of mine who left Jamaica to attend two top Universities in the world, one of which was MIT, before working for several top computer companies in the world. What is remarkable is not that he was able to accomplish at this very high level. Stories of Jamaicans going abroad and rising quickly to the top are a dime a dozen.

What is remarkable is that he had attended UWI for a couple of years, and according to him had done "OK." He played football for fun, and quickly realized that he did not really need to study to pass. So, he stopped studying, played a LOT of football, and still he kept on passing. This was testimony to his brilliance.

It dawned on him that he was wasting his life.

He took the SAT's (with one year left to graduate from UWI) and applied for a transfer to a top school in the US, which he had no problem getting. He told me something like "I realized that I couldn't live like that, with such low standards -- I almost gave up on myself, and got lost in the process."

It strikes me that what attracted him to the US was the extraordinary challenge it was to operate, learn and work at the highest of world standards.

This leads me to think that one thing that we Returnees have to our Advantage is not the money that we all hope to accumulate before returning home, or the education in the formal sense from a foreign school (now so readily available in Jamaica) but instead the following:

1. A willingness to work very, very hard and to be around those who work very, very hard. What a Harvard MBA alum will tell you most about is the volume of work they had to get done, the lack of sleep, and the people they were forced to work with juust to survive. This willingness to work hard at a very high standard is sorely missing among the average homegrown professional, and gives a returnee a distinct advantage

2. A hunger to learn from the best, wherever they might be. I recall my first college roommate taking me under his wing and telling me "exactly" all the things I needed to do. At first I resisted his help, because it felt like I should know these things and I didn't see them as urgent, anyway (with my 18 year old mind.) Eventually, I relented, and thank God I did, because his advice was incredibly useful as he had been an engineer before me, at the same school, before returning to complete his MBA. Some of his advice didn't make sense when he told me in the moment he first gave it, but he turned about to be very, very savvy in retrospect and I eventually followed just about everything he laid out for me -- he was a savvy guy.

3. A commitment to high standards, no matter what. The reason Digicel was able to sweep the cell-phone market away from Cable and Wireless (C&W) in Jamaica in such a stunning manner, was not just because they were cheaper. It was also because they introduced a significantly high standard of just about everything related to the industry -- equipment, customer service, store-layout, website, ease of use, etc. (which incidentally, C&W is getting closer and closer to meeting.)

When a returnee who is a professional enters the working world, these advantages are powerful ones that just cannot to be underestimated. The point here is not that a Jamaican who lives in Jamaica and has never worked abroad cannot achieve high standards. Far from it. The marketplace in Jamaica rewards employees and companies who work harder, learn / innovate faster and maintain higher standards, and doesn't care much where "yuh come from."

I'm reminded of the parable of the blind man sitting on a box, begging alms on the side of the road. He begs for a pittance each day, until a wise man comes by and asks him why he has never opened the box. He does so, and realizes that it is filled with gold.

That gold comes at a price, however. I remember friends of mine (I was spared) cleaning toilets at college just to make things meet. Others had even messier jobs (especially in the cafeteria!) I don't know what license we Jamaicans get when we go abroad to do these things, but the idea that we have when we leave Jamaica does not include doing things we would never think of doing.

And... maybe that's the real gold -- becoming someone who is willing to work hard, learn and keep high standards. The question is, how do returnees give up a desire to make Jamaicans at home think that "we look good" and "we made it?" How do we do that, and instead hold on to the gold that _really_ makes a difference?


At 3/10/2006 8:15 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great article. Love it.

At 3/18/2006 6:08 PM, Blogger fwade said...

Thanks Errol!

At 3/22/2006 10:47 AM, Anonymous Karelle said...

First I appreciated Mr Wade's article. But I came away from the article with a different outlook. I am both a product of Jamaica's and 'abroads' education system and I can safely say that without the foundation I got from my Jamaican schooling I would have struggled during my years abroad as a student. Therefore, my question is how we work on the strengths of the Jamaican education system to produce those 'quality' individuals? Your article to me was all about advocating reform in the education system here so we can expand on the already outstanding individuals our institutions have produced.
How can we (Jamaicans who had the abroad experience)contribute to this reform process? Would it mean creating a mentoring program for university students? Facilitating exchange fora between our colleagues abroad and Jamaicans?

At 3/22/2006 4:33 PM, Blogger fwade said...


My experience matches yours exactly.

On the other hand, I suspect that the education that you and I received is not typical of what most Jamaican students are currently getting.

I recently saw some CXC pass statistics and the numbers were downright scary (check the Gleaner or Observer for details.)

Reforming our education system is a part of it, I agree. But we benefit greatly from students who go abroad, also.

At Trini Carnival this year I ran into some beautiful, highly trained young women. One was a Harvard-trained lawyer.

All I could tell them to do was "come home."

I like the idea of exchange programs and mentoring programs -- I benefited from the former as a student myself. I think this is worth discussing further.

Grace Kennedy has a great program they have launched to give college students a chance to work in Jamaica. I think it is brilliant.

At 4/14/2006 10:56 PM, Anonymous O-Afriq-i- said...

Nice website. I will be joining you shortly as a returnee myself.

your friend in the article reminds me of myself...i am also an engineer BS & MSME and i also decided not to study...i turned down admissions to MiT and Harvard...i attend a regular university in florida...i am completing a phd and am still in the non-studying mode.

We must recognize that VOLUNTARY returnees are exceptional individuals to begin with...So your dealings with them will be on an exceptional level. Example: Despite my poor study habits i am highly motivated, unlike my brothers, who will remain in the usa, and are less passionate. There are six of us all doing well but i am the only one driven to return to JA. make a long story short point is it takes an exceptional individual to be a VOLUNTARY returnee especially in the PRODUCTIVE years of one's life.

On the high standards of foreign education, i have to say such a statement is questionable my experience has been that of low academic standards and a lack regard for rigor.

There are certainly places in which the JA education system needs to be improved...however there are some great things about it as well.

I look forward to spending more time on your site and joining you in support of a greater society.

At 4/29/2006 12:12 PM, Blogger Ruminations of a Racial Realist said...

I'm considering moving to Jamaica - but everyone keeps telling me it's dangerous and I'd be on my own - so I don't know...I'm also interested in the Bahamas, the US Virgin Islands and Bermuda - it all depends on where I'm able to find a job!

At 10/03/2007 2:34 PM, Anonymous Michelle said...

Well Mr. Wade, you know my position already and my determination to make it back home. I am glad you have been fair in your evaluations and not simply praising Jamaica and dunning foreign...everywhere has its good and bad points, and the sooner people realize that, the more carefully they will think about why they want to be any particular place.

i do COMPLETELY agree with this poster's point: "point is it takes an exceptional individual to be a VOLUNTARY returnee especially in the PRODUCTIVE years of one's life. " That is what I want, as you know. To return while I am young enough to still LIVE, not just wrinkle up on retirement hard, play hard, maybe even get married, all down there. I am in my final year of grad school getting my MBA, and while I keep my options open, I have definitely started putting out feelers for a permanent position in Jamaica.

One gripe about your post though: how "great" is Grace Kennedy's program if all they do is give an internship taste of Jamaica, and don't organize it to offer successful candidates actual JOBS in Jamaica, should they so desire?

At 10/04/2007 8:12 AM, Blogger fwade said...

I can't speak for them (Grace Kennedy) but I imagine that they would be interested in hiring their interns, provided that they qualify...


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