Trinidad

Photo Credit: Marshall Tidrick | Daily Texan Staff

It wasn’t always about basketball for new head coach Shaka Smart.

He remembers sitting at a typewriter when he was young, sending letters to his father, who left for a supposed vacation to his native Trinidad.

He remembers his father coming home about eight years later, judgmental, difficult and harsh.

He remembers hearing the door slam as his father left for the final time in 1994 in the midst of a cold Wisconsin winter.

But Winston Smart was not your typical absent father. When the family heard from him for the first time years after the first disappearance, he was getting his law degree from Washington University in St. Louis — one of his four degrees. He valued education over everything.

“He just didn’t like that I was so into sports,” Smart told CBSSports. “He always wanted me to be just about academics, … and he crossed the line a few times.”

In Smart’s single-mother home, school was always first.

He had his share of basketball success at Oregon High School in Wisconsin, leaving as the all-time leader in assists and a second-team All-Badger pick, but he didn’t get any offers that would make you jump out of your chair.

No one would have second guessed him if he had called it a career and, instead of pursuing basketball, chosen between Harvard, Yale and Brown for his college education.  

“Well, I love the game,” Smart said at his introductory press conference Friday afternoon. “Like these guys, at a young age, I just wanted to play as long as I could play.”

With those Harvard and Yale acceptance letters sitting on the table, Smart developed a close, paternal relationship with Bill Brown, the head coach at Division III Kenyon College.

That opportunity to play for the father he never had led him to the small liberal arts school in the middle of Ohio.

Then, Brown left him after his freshman year.

“I remember just crying for like three days,” Smart said in December. “I was 19 and lost because this guy, my father figure, just left. And, honestly, that’s one of the reasons I’ve stayed at VCU. It factors into my mind. It really does. What happened to me is a factor.”

That’s what’s led Smart to his loyalty. He builds as many relationships as he can wherever he is, and he doesn’t want to let anyone down.

That’s part of the reason he turned down North Carolina State. And UCLA. And Maryland. And Marquette. And Illinois. And Tennessee.

“I got the chance to help them along the way with that, but I really cherish those relationships,” Smart said. “As I mentioned, that’s the hardest part of leaving. I didn’t know if I would ever leave because of that.”

But when Texas came calling, Smart saw a “no-brainer” opportunity — a chance to lead Texas, with all the in-state talent and state-of-the-art resources, to its first national championship.

He looks forward to instilling “havoc” in the Frank Erwin Center. He looks forward to working with his first great set of big men and playing in a Power Five conference.

But all those take a backseat to his main goal — being that father figure and guiding them in the right direction.

“The hope is that you are creating a relationship and strong bond that is going to last forever,” Smart said. “I think when you go through certain shared experiences, particularly when those experiences involve first adversity and then triumph and preferably championships, there’s nothing like that to bring people together.”

Isn’t that the kind of man you want to run your program?

“We pride ourselves at the University of Texas in a great academic program and in a great athletics program and in doing it with integrity,” UT president William Powers Jr. said. “Given that background and criteria, I can’t think of a person to lead us into the future in men’s basketball than coach Smart.”

Editor's Note: This column is the second in a series on higher education abroad from UT-Austin students who are currently studying or traveling outside the U.S. 

Trinidad and Tobago, two small islands in the Caribbean that make up one country, could be seen as fraternal twins. While Tobago fits the ideal, touristic description of the Caribbean lifestyle, with its tranquil beaches and easygoing ambience, Trinidad is a busy, oil-rich island. In October 2009, Trinidad was removed as a “developing nation” from a list created by the Development Assistance Committee of the Organization of Economic Development and Cooperation.  

From the 45-minute drive from the airport to my family’s new home, I was shocked (and admittedly disappointed) at the amount of industry I saw along the way. However, from a local’s point of view, this hustle and bustle means job opportunities in the oil and energy sectors, which influences the focus of higher education within its borders.

While many aspects of higher education in Trinidad differ from those of the United States and Texas, the major difference is the most popular type of curriculum. While the United States greatly respects the liberal arts, Trinidad – along with many other nations – focuses on offering career-oriented studies for its university students.

It is important to understand that globally, having the luxury to study the liberal arts is made possible by individual and societal privilege. However, the unpopularity of the liberal arts in developed nations equivalent to the U.S. isn’t due to a lack of wealth, but the cultural perceptions of the liberal arts as valueless.  

In the United States, there are more than 500 colleges entirely dedicated to the liberal arts, 15 of which are within Texas. In contrast, majoring in the liberal arts is relatively uncommon outside the U.S.

A liberal arts student has the freedom to carve out his or her future, at a cost. Those majoring in the liberal arts take on opportunities in school such as unpaid internships, fellowships and pricey study abroad programs (which may be required in some cases). After receiving an undergraduate degree, many students who majored in the liberal arts must then take extra time to establish a career path (except those students who attend graduate school.) Despite its popularity, majoring in the liberal arts isn't entirely uncontroversial in the United States, as it is a road that does not set out a specific career path after college.

In Trinidad, the University of the West Indies at St. Augustine (UWI) is part of a larger public school system in the Caribbean known for its engineering programs which attracts students from all around the region.

Kristianna Aird, a recent graduate of UWI with a degree in accounting, illuminated the unpopularity of the liberal arts in Trinidad when she answered my question about the extracurricular involvement of students at the university without mentioning liberal arts students at all. 

“It depended on the degrees that people were doing, because the law, medicine and engineering students don't have much school spirit, but the business and management students tended to attend all the football games and be at all of the UWI parties,” Aird said.

Nici Syriac, a student in her third and final year at ROYTEC, a subsidiary business school of UWI, explained that the Trinidadian higher education system doesn’t exist without its drawbacks, such as underemployment.

With free tuition through the government-funded program Government Assistance for Tuition Expenses (GATE) leading to many students graduating with education in a technical profession, graduates are being released into a job market with a high demand for - but low supply of - jobs.  

“Now there are many young people with degrees and no job because we are over-qualified with no experience,” Syriac said. “When we do want a job, we have to get low-class jobs in order to gain experience.”

In the United States, there is a tradition of having the freedom of exploring your education and career options and taking your time to figure out what you as an individual are best suited for.

With the exception of certain majors that are better defined, a liberal arts degree generally offers the flexibility to perform creatively and analytically at many jobs. Possessing a "blank slate" in the job market can be liberating for some, yet overwhelming for others. It is no surprise that the process requires time and money. In other nations, acquiring the education for a professional trade as fast and cheaply as possible is often your best option.

Manescu is an international relations and global studies sophomore from Ploiesti, Romania.