Nolan Sweeting knew he was going to St. Augustine’s University before he knew where it was.
How, I asked, did he—growing up on Nassau in the Bahamas—know about a small liberal arts university in Raleigh?
“My mom,” he replied. “She is an ’89 graduate of St. Augustine’s. Through her constantly talking about it, I almost had no choice but to choose it as my school.”
Sweeting, twenty-one, is a senior biology major at St. Aug’s. He plans to go to veterinary school upon graduation.
“I want to be the first veterinarian to have his own hospital in the Bahamas,” he told me recently. “I plan to stay here for a while and get some networking opportunities that I can carry back to the Bahamas.”
Right now, he’s just hoping there’ll be someplace left to carry something back to.
On September 1, huge swaths of the Bahamas were obliterated by Hurricane Dorian, the most powerful cyclone on record to strike the commonwealth. The official death toll stands at fifty, though the number of reported missing is at thirteen hundred.
Lavar Stubbs, a business major from Nassau, says one of those missing right after the storm was a childhood friend.
“That made it hard” to concentrate on classes, he says. But this story has a happy ending. His friend was found after about five days, hunkered down in a shelter.
Stubbs, like Sweeting and four of the other five Bahamian students to whom I spoke, plans to return to Nassau.
“I’m hoping to open my own marketing firm and market the best features of my island to the world,” he says.
All of the Bahamian students on St. Aug’s campus and in the Triangle community are close-knit, Stubbs says, socializing and throwing parties “every couple of weeks. Every time a new Bahamian comes to campus, we welcome him or her.”
I’d called upon Sweeting, Stubbs, and other St. Aug’s Bahamian students to see what we in the Triangle could do for them—being so far from home—but they were only interested in alleviating the misery back home. They told me about the Bahamas Relief Supplies Drive on Friday, September 20, at Emery Gymnasium on St. Aug’s campus, from 7:00 p.m.–9:00 p.m.
Asked what they want people to bring, Stubbs told me, “Anything you would need to start a new life, especially baby supplies.”
Sweeting says most of his immediate family, living in Nassau, were not directly affected by Dorian, but members of his extended family who live on other islands were. (As we spoke, there was another hurricane, Humberto, threatening Nassau; it has since moved away from land, though it did dump rain on areas already soaked by Dorian.)
“We talk daily,” Sweeting told me. “I have an aunt who’s a doctor in Freeport right now. She’s there helping patients cope with all of the trauma they went through, helping them to regain their strength.”
Even as a student at St. Aug’s—I was there just about long enough to eat lunch four decades ago—I marveled at the number of Bahamian students on campus. Like Sweeting, many of them came after hearing family members and friends extolling the school’s virtues.
Stubbs, a high school classmate of Sweeting, says he chose the Raleigh school not only because his pal did, but because “some of its earlier alumni from the Bahamas have gone on to achieve great things.” Others came after being recruited by the university’s world-renowned track coach, George Williams.
From the 1990s through the mid-2000s, there was an airline service—Laker Airways/Bahamas—that twice a week would fly directly from Raleigh to the Bahamas. I mean, you could be sitting at your desk at work, stressing over deadlines, and call up a travel agent, book a flight, and be in Freeport ninety minutes later. I made that jubilant weekend jaunt many, many times.
Laker Airways/Bahamas is no more. But since the people of the Bahamas always treated me so well when I was there, I figured the least I can do is try to help the students they’ve sent over here.
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INDY Voices—a rotating column featuring some of the Triangle’s most compelling writers—is made possible by contributions to the INDY Press Club. Visit KeepItINDY.com for more information.
BARRY SAUNDERS is a former News & Observer columnist and editorial writer. He currently publishes thesaundersreport.com.
NEXT WEEK: GREG DOUCETTE, a local attorney, criminal justice reform advocate, and host of the podcast #Fsck ’Em All.