Wednesday, 12 November 2008 8:26 AM

Cuban Scholarships: a footnote

I thank Makoti for initiating the discussion around the above subject. Others who have contributed on Solomon Times did raise further opinions around it. They must be commended too. I will be contributing as a 'bureaucratic' insider, as I was one of the NTC-six-member Special committee (SC) for the coordination of the first bunch of our 'medical scholars'.

I hope the following observations/comments can better inform the current discussion:

1. In the MOU signed between SI and Cuba (a result of our diplomatic/bilateral relation), the assigned ministries for the medical exchange (SI students to Cuba - Cuban doctors to SI) are: Ministry of Health and Medical Services (MHMS), Ministry of Education and Human Resources development (MEHRD), and Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT);

2. The MHMS was tasked with the responsibility for choosing candidates in collaboration with the MEHRD. The PS for the former will be the right person to comment on its specifics. However, a necessary prerequisite is that a candidate must be an intern (for a year) at the National Referral Hospital (NRH). In short, it's this ministry which fronts the initial selection of candidates, and then submits their names to the SC for scrutiny. For the first group, in their final submission to the SC, alongside all the candidates names are character 'boxes/blank spaces' where their supervisors at the NRH rank them (1-10), and make comments in reference to their suitability for the medical profession (how they relate to people, ask questions, handle difficult patients etc.). This has been helpful as from these comments one can judge a candidate's suitability from other references apart from the GPAs. For instance, I observed that there are some who have very high GPAs, but with very low character scores', while others have average GPAs but with good character scores. A very few have both highs;

3. The role of the MEHRD is to convene a 'Special committee' as the MOU requires. During SC meetings, the position of the Chairperson, Under-Secretary Tim, was that those who are finally selected must satisfy the standard SIG/NTU requirements. In other words, even if the MHMS selects candidates, they are not final as in the event that they don't satisfy SIG/NTU GPA standards etc., they will be removed (Actually, we did remove some - one of them my nephew!);

4. The role of the MFAT was merely that of an official 'rubber stamp' (provided for in the MOU). It coordinates the necessary traveling arrangements, and conveys the final list to Cuba through their embassy in the Philippines. It also holds briefings for the final group (I coordinated this for the first group), and an officer travels with the "mob" to Havana (a desk officer);

5. In the SC meetings in which I was part of, these are a few of what occurred, especially in reference to how I contributed to the selection process. First, I suggested that maybe the 'provincial representation criterion' which the SC would like to use is flawed. I know some of the readers will not agree with me but I have my reasons. They include a personal belief that the medical practice is blind to such a requirement. For instance, when a candidate sits for an exam in Havana, the examiner does not give preferential treatment to him/her because the candidate comes from a province that does not have a doctor yet. Or when a sick patient lies on a bed in a clinic or hospital, he or she will not ask first where the attending doctor comes from. Simply put, medicine as a discipline is for those with able minds; as a practice is for those who believe in hard work and a desire to give; and finally as a profession, it is blind to our local provincialism debate (the doctors can contribute more to this). It has its own ethics and certainly 'provincialism' is not on the list!

6. I also suggested that the female-candidates list should be examined first before the male one. My simple reason being that SI doesn't have many female doctors (I may be wrong). And from the above list, they are just around 10 -15, and thus it is easy to have them sorted out, while the SC deals with the male candidates (30 plus). The main reason for the focus around "numbers" was because Cuba got back to SI and said that, they can only provide for only twenty five students and not fifty as was promised to SI (in the MOU). The SC resolved that we must have fifty spaces as previously agreed on, and SI will send its students in "two groups of 25 in each". This was conveyed to Havana via the Philippines;

7. Regarding my point 5, the SC ruled that GPA and character measurements are paramount, and my point 6 was easily endorsed. It might also be of some help to the reader to mention that, just before the tickets were bought for the finalised names, 3/4 of the male candidates opted to go to USP (Fiji) for science studies, including the top female candidate (of the group) who when she realised that she is being awarded with an AusAid scholarship, she opted to do her medical studies in PNG. This results in the SC on short notice having to find replacements with GPAs between 3.0 and 3.5 (still from the list).

8. A comment is passing regarding GPA. I don't disagree that we need to have smart candidates for medicine (in a humorous way, maybe those of us doing other disciplines are low IQ-ed!). But evidences I gather from some of my friends who are now doctors give me encouragement. GPA is not the only measurement for medical success. I have seen people who are very smart during my days at KGVI (82-88), but have squandered medical opportunities and never recovered. Others who aren't smart but who optimised their opportunities with passion are now serving SI in different offices, including in the medical practice. I look to these examples and convinced myself that one can achieve anything if you are deeply passionate about it, work hard, and the medical profession is no exception;

9. Finally, readers may also like to know that the $$-allowance for international students (not only SI-ders) under these medical exchange scholarships is just USD20.00 per month (a legal regulation in Cuba). And candidates can only return after six yrs (no holidays bro!), however the good news is that they will learn Spanish.

10. I may not know much about how students are selected in the past, but this I know well: I did participate in the screening for the first group to Havana with the best of my knowledge, used within the honest application of the SC responsibilities.

11. I wish our students in Cuba all the best in studies, and to the readers - Muchas Gracias

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this letter/article are those of George Hoa'au and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Solomon Times Online.

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