The International College of the Cayman Islands, which marked its 45th anniversary Thursday, has been “a story of the little engine that could,” said President Emerita Dr. Elsa Cummings, who, with her husband Hugh Cummings, founded the territory’s first institution of higher education.
“We started so humbly,” Mrs. Cummings said. “I suppose we were dreamers.”
She and her husband had a passion for academics and a belief that everyone deserves access to educational opportunities.
As a young, rising academic in America in the 1960s, she gave it all up to start the college with her husband, who was its first president. Mrs. Cummings began as an instructor and worked in nearly every administrative department before taking over as president in 1990, a role she held until 2008.
Mr. Cummings passed away in 2000.
“At this time I consider myself the old-timer, trying to preserve some of the history, and I assist in whatever way I can,” Mrs. Cummings said. “I just can’t see myself spending days at the beach.”
Current ICCI President David Marshall lauded Mrs. Cummings as a woman of “excellence and vision.”
“This country owes her a huge debt of gratitude for the part she has played in building capacity for Cayman through education when no one else was willing or able to,” Mr. Marshall said. “I can only hope that as my life progresses, I am able to impact the lives of so many people in such a profound way as she has done throughout her life and career.”
Mrs. Cummings said she has had a deep appreciation for academics, and a love of reading and learning since she was a child, so it is fitting that she has devoted her life to ensuring that others have the opportunity to take college classes or study for a higher education degree.
Originally from the Isle of Pines (renamed the Isla de la Juventud in 1978), the second-largest Cuban island, Mrs. Cummings had to go to the United States to attend college. She completed a bachelor’s degree in Romance languages and a master’s degree in Spanish and French from West Virginia University. She earned a doctorate from the University of Oregon.
In 1966 she married Mr. Cummings, and they stopped in the Cayman Islands during their honeymoon. Mrs. Cummings’s mother and grandmother were both originally from Cayman. Her husband enjoyed the island, promised his new wife a longer visit soon, and they returned to Portland, Oregon, where they were both college instructors.
In Portland they met a teacher from Bodden Town, Floris McCoy-McField, who was upgrading her teaching credentials at a college in the city. Ms. McCoy-Mcfield expressed the need for a college in the Cayman Islands, and the idea took root with the Cummings couple.
“We had an example of two Caymanians that happened to be in Portland, and they had to leave in order to increase their qualifications, so it seemed like the right thing to do for the greater good,” Mrs. Cummings said. “For some reason, it seemed like it was something feasible that we could do. It became a labor of love.”
After a founding committee was created in 1967, it did not take long for the college to open. James Manoah Bodden donated the land for the campus in Newlands, and volunteers from the American Friends Service Committee and Operation Crossroads Africa came to help build the main hall and the dormitory.
“The amazing thing is that these were not wealthy people and yet they contributed to see this through,” Mrs. Cummings said. “They believed in education and higher education and giving the opportunity for those who desire.”
Classes began Sept. 24, 1970. An advertisement in The Caymanian Weekly newspaper that day describes the first classes offered. Night classes included English, business, music appreciation, education, history of the Caribbean and marine biology. Day courses ranged from art and anthropology to biology and physical science.
ICCI also started the first radio station in Cayman, in 1972, thanks to a donation of a radio tower from a station in Portland.
“Dr. Hugh, since he was a boy, had a fondness for radio and he really devoted quite a bit of time to making sure that we could function,” Mrs. Cummings said, adding that once they even used a car battery to keep the radio station going.
Such ingenuity, making do with whatever resources are on hand, has characterized the school, which came from humble beginnings and had to be completely rebuilt after Hurricane Ivan.
“I’m really grateful to the students, especially the early ones, because at that time we were not accredited,” Mrs. Cummings said. “Our buildings were quite modest-looking.”
The buildings were so modest, in fact, that when the accreditors came to evaluate the college, the chair of the committee thought they might as well just turn around.
“But when they came and fact-checked to see what we were doing, and the faculty and staff, and their commitment to really providing higher education, it was a complete turn-around.”
The college received accreditation in 1979.
“That is usually what happens up to today,” Mrs. Cummings said. “People aren’t usually impressed by the appearance, although to me it’s a big improvement from the 1970s, but when they meet the faculty and staff, their perspective changes completely.”
In 2014, there were 44 graduates with 46 degrees awarded: 18 associate degrees, 16 bachelor’s degrees, five master’s degrees in human resources and seven master’s degrees in business administration. Of those, 39 had found employment by graduation.
The college anticipates that 220 students will enroll for the fall quarter, which begins Oct. 5. In the past, enrollment was larger, but the college made “a conscious decision only to graduate students who have met the minimal academic benchmarks of their peers at internationally accredited institutions,” according to Mr. Marshall.
“Our commitment is to produce fewer high-quality, globally competitive students rather than just graduate students,” he said. “Some students have not been able to meet the increasingly rising academic standards. However, those who are remaining and the ones we are graduating, I believe can stand their ground with their peers in competitive internationally benchmarked categories … .
“This is part of our commitment to making sure that we are doing our small part to help grow Cayman’s economy by producing highly qualified local graduates.”
Mrs. Cummings said she is proud of the ICCI students who have made contributions to Cayman, holding positions in the government, the hospital, airport and Radio Cayman. She believes ICCI can and will continue to support the local workforce in the future.
“The economy on the island requires more and more qualified personnel, so there are two options, it seems to me,” Mrs. Cummings said. “Either they can allow personnel from abroad to come to do these jobs, or they can become skilled and qualified to perform some of those functions.”