From the Caribbean to Preston in nine days

Mayor of Preston, Councillor Brian Rollo, hosting a civic welcome to Preston for the staff and students from the American University of the Caribbean who were displaced by Hurricane Irma
Mayor of Preston, Councillor Brian Rollo, hosting a civic welcome to Preston for the staff and students from the American University of the Caribbean who were displaced by Hurricane Irma

As a concept, it sounds as far-fetched as a plot from a Hollywood film.

Hundreds of staff and students displaced by the impact of a devastating Caribbean hurricane pitch up in an English city less than a fortnight later.

Lew Lukens, from the US Embassy, Mark Hendrick MP, Dr Heidi Chumley of AUC

Lew Lukens, from the US Embassy, Mark Hendrick MP, Dr Heidi Chumley of AUC

And in that “small and welcoming northern city”, the survivors of Hurricane Irma are able to seamlessly continue their studies.

Related article: City to step in to re-home hurricane-hit university

But far from the realm of fantasy, that’s exactly what happened and yesterday a civic ceremony was held at the Guild Hall to officially welcome around 700 students and staff from the American University of the Caribbean School (AUC) of Medicine who have made the city home after fleeing the devastating hurricanes that hit the Caribbean earlier in the year.

Enthusiastic applause and whoops of delight filled the main chamber as Dr Heidi Chumley, executive dean of the AUC, paid tribute to her counterparts at UCLan, where the students have been able to continue their studies, and signalled out her first year students who had just completed their first batch of mid-term exams despite weeks of upheaval.

St Maarten - where the AUC is based - bore the brunt of Hurricane Irma in September with much of the island’s infrastructure destroyed.

Many of the students were facing being relocated to various locations across the US, until UCLan - through its clinical partnership schemes - became involved.

A plan was hatched to move the entire medical school faculty. Instead of being scattered, the staff and students could be kept together.

Prof Mike Thomas, UCLan vice chancellor, told the Lancashire Post: “When it was first brought to me (the plan), I actually laughed. When I realised my chief operating officer was serious I said come back with the logistics and he was back the same afternoon. And we did it.

“I have said I am so proud I’m actually speechless, that’s how I feel. I could burst (with pride). We managed to move a university from the Caribbean to Preston in nine days, it must be a record of some description. Within 11 days they were attending their own lectures.

“Preston is a small city but it’s small and welcoming and it made our job a lot easier to work with the city.

“When you think some of the students were there (through the hurricane) and were traumatised, it was tough for a lot of them. So, to come to a friendly city and university still with their friends and colleagues around them, that’s really helped.”

Some of the students will return to AUC early next year, some will remain in Preston for many more months.

Chief executive of Preston City Council Lorraine Norris said she hoped it was the start of an enduring partnership between UCLan, Preston and the AUC.

Ms Norris even encouraged the trainee doctors to leave their details so they can be involved in the 2032 Preston Guild.

And mayor Brian Rollo delivered a potted history of the city and Preston North End, telling the students: “Welcome to Preston, we’re a friendly city.”

Deputy chief of mission at the US Embassy Lewis Lukens, said it was a story worthy of dramatisation.

He said: “I hope someone is writing a screenplay for what will doubtlessly be a Hollywood blockbuster - (it’s an) incredible story.”

He had earlier told the Lancashire Post: “I’m here on behalf of the US Government and the embassy in London to thank the community and thank the university for all the work they’ve done to bring all these American students over, really for their graciousness and their hospitality.

“The initial idea was to bring 20 or 30 students over and when the university found out about it they said, ‘We’ll take them all’.

“It’s that type of generosity of spirit that is so great that underscores the relationship we have between the US and the UK; partners and friends and cousins. People who are willing to jump in and do this together.”

Mayor Brian Rollo said: “It took nine days, to get them all here. Everyone has pulled all the stops out to make it happen. I’m proud that Preston has done this.

“In the long term these people will remember Preston. They’ve got another six months to go. They’ll remember the winter because it won’t be what they were expecting with winter in the Caribbean.

“The eskimos have got 50 words for snow, we’ve probably got 50 words for rain!”

Mark Hendrick, Preston MP said: “It’s tremendous that the university had the capacity to bring over so many students and staff from the Caribbean. What’s happened here is amazing generosity from UCLan to allow the staff to come and allow the students to continue and providing facilities and accommodation.

“I’m very proud, I’ve been involved in international affairs throughout my time as an MP and to see my own city and local university hold out the hand of friendship in this way is tremendous and I’m very proud to be here. I tabled an Early Day Motion in Parliament signed by many MPs who are very supportive of what Preston is doing.”

Heidi Chumley, executive dean at AUC, said: “It’s been surreal for a long time. We’ve been very welcomed here, we share values and interests and we see this as a start of a long-term partnership. It’s a lovely city, people are incredibly friendly. It’s got everything medical students would want.

“From when we first met up with UCLan, nine days later (the students) were ready to start classes. The UCLan team was amazing.

“(The hurricane) was terrifying. Our building can withstand category 5 so we were getting everyone into that building. For the people there it was a very harrowing experience.

“There are so many amazing stories of the students forming up in teams (in the aftermath).”