It's been nine years since a Trinidadian brought home the renowned Commonwealth Caribbean Rhodes Scholarship. But it was worth the wait. Because Kiron Cornelius Neale, the young man from Marabella who beat six other candidates from across the region, is a Leonardo Da Vinci-like polymath — an academic who is also an artist and an athlete. Oh, and a moon-walking Michael Jackson fan.
In an eloquent and touching valedictory speech at this year's graduation, the University of the West Indies alumnus reminded his classmates of his debut at student orientation three years ago, when he tried to glide and moonwalk through "Billie Jean", on the very stage that he was delivering the address.
The last Faculty of Science and Agriculture valedictorian (the faculty has now been demerged into the Faculty of Food and Agriculture and the Faculty of Science and Technology) has not only a sense of humour, but one of humility.
This, in addition to his desire to change the world, no doubt was the winning combination that blew all competition out of the water to take the Rhodes scholarship to Oxford University. (Two other candidates were from T&T, one from Barbados, two from Dominica and the last from Jamaica).
The 22-year-old majored in Geography and Environment & Natural Resource Management, completing his BSc with First Class Honours. A CXC results awardee and the top CAPE candidate for Environmental Sciences in 2009, Neale also won the Caribbean Academy of Sciences Studentship to present his undergraduate dissertation on alternative fuel sources at the Caribbean Academy of Sciences General Meeting and Conference earlier this month.
At present, the former "Pres man" (Presentation College, San Fernando) and government scholarship winner is an Associate Professional in the Environmental Policy and Planning Division of the Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources.
He can't recall any precise moment when he became passionate about the environment. "To be honest, it's something that came naturally," he said. "I guess from studying Geography at CXC, and then I was introduced to Environmental Science at CAPE — I thought, 'This stuff is really interesting'."
He didn't gravitate towards the humanities, he said, because being human, he could easily relate to these fields, while the environment was an unknown area that he wanted to understand better.
Unlike US candidates for the American Rhodes scholarships who are drilled and coached for the interview, Neale did not prepare intensively for the selection process. Instead, he ensured that he had his documentation in order, including six references that spoke to his leadership qualities, his desire to change the world, and his concern for humanity, which are key criteria for the Rhodes scholarship.
He revised his personal statement, a major distinguishing aspect that made him a finalist, "quite a number of times". In the statement, he tied his undergraduate research in the use of solar energy (specifically on Housing Development Corporation houses) to his naturalist paintings and his energy in sports (he ran for UWI in his first year and was the 60m champion and 300m silver medallist at the University of Alberta Campus games, where he spent a semester on exchange).
During the interview, he says, he was constantly asked by the selection panel about his extraordinary use of language, given that he is a scientist.
He believes his ability to articulate ideas and thoughts comes from his art and being able to express himself creatively, and not from reading lots of literature.
"I read a lot of climate change stuff these days," he laughed, "because it's a hot topic right now. We have the Conference of the Parties going on in Doha, Qatar, so I'm following up on that. If I have to read something, it would probably be more nature or environmental based."
As a government scholarship winner, he could have attended another university abroad. But, he says, he chose to do his first degree at home because "You have to understand yourself, your country and your region before you can understand the world, and where you want to go in it. So that's part of the reason that I actually chose to go to UWI." As fate would have it, he also had the opportunity to experience life at a university abroad, through the International Office at UWI.
He says he views the semester he spent at the University of Alberta in Canada as a snapshot of what his time at Oxford will be like. He's looking forward to experiencing Oxford's collegiate system, and has identified Linacre College as the one he would like to attend, since it came top of a University-wide 'green college' survey carried out by the student press in 2007. It is the first Oxbridge College to be carbon-neutral and hold Fairtrade status.
"Me being a Caribbean person and the certain flavour that we have, I want to see how that will play out up there," Neale joked. "Everyone thinks the English are very straightforward and serious — I want to see if I can spice things up on hall!"
The Rhodes scholarship will cover all his expenses for two years. He has already applied to Oxford to study for a master's in Environmental Change and Management. This programme is only for one year though, so he will probably do another Master's afterwards.
He strongly believes that T&T must switch to alternative energy, and soon. With only 10 years of hydrocarbon reserves left — according to the Ryder Scott reservoir-evaluation consulting firm, and his own calculations — we have no choice but to find alternative sources of energy.
Our geographical position makes solar energy a natural (no pun intended) option. If countries such as Germany can be attempting to tap into solar energy, with so little of it, why don't we?
In Barbados, most homes already use solar water heaters. "I've never seen a house fully powered by solar energy and off the grid," Neale said. "That is what my research looks at — taking HDC homes off the grid, and power them completely with solar energy."
But the fuel subsidy discourages consumers from switching to alternative sources. He suggests turning the hydrocarbon subsidy into a green subsidy — so that the transition would be faster and smoother. "Gas is way too cheap here, compared to the rest of the world, even the rest of the region," he pointed out.
His ambition to address the energy problems that the rest of the region faces, and which we, too, will face in the future, may well have been the clincher for him winning the Rhodes. That, and his unshakeable belief in the power of our people.
In his valedictory address, he said: "This world has an economic climate characterised by the hydrocarbons, the catalyst of our growth and progress. But as the Caribbean basin seeks to diversify its energy base, I say to you, my fellow graduates, that these conventional resources are not the future. The future of the region should be powered by the energy, passion and ambition of its upcoming leaders. Caribbean sustainability should be based on the greatest resource: you, the human capital, the revolutionary thinkers and innovators."
—To read the full text of
Kiron Neale's valedictory speech, visit http://sta.uwi.edu/uwitoday/article26.asp