Good morning.

The most memorable and engaging events in my diary are always those which involve young people and I am thrilled to be in the company of such an interesting and diverse mix. Your energy and optimism provide me with hope for the future of Trinidad and Tobago. I thank your Guidance Counsellor, Ms. Noreiga, for her invitation to address you at this critical juncture in your journey to adulthood.

Every one of you is at a different stage in life.  The youngest are fresh-faced not long out of primary school while the oldest are on the cusp of womanhood. Among you exists an abundance of perspectives, histories, experiences and valuable lessons learned up to today. The older girls are acutely aware of the many challenges and frustrations that accompany adolescence, while the younger have now begun to walk that thorny, but unavoidable path.  

Even though your world is vastly different to the one in which I grew up, there are some things which remain the same. Adolescence still presents a roller coaster of emotions and identity crises; peer pressure, stress, self-esteem issues and the need to make difficult decisions.

As children who were born in the information age, you have to navigate a complex and connected world, brimming with opportunities and new possibilities. A wealth of information is available at your fingertips, which has the ability to empower, but also, to derail your progress and ambitions. In this new reality, the line between what is constructive and what is destructive can be blurred.

A good example of this is the ubiquitous social media: Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Tik tok are all platforms which can be useful, but, also serve to exacerbate age-old problems. Bullying is no longer confined to school halls, but has moved online and into your homes and personal spaces. Sexual predators hide behind fake profiles which they use to deceive, groom and prey upon unsuspecting young persons. The glitz and glamour portrayed by ‘Instamodels’ and popular YouTube ‘influencers’ can contribute to low self-esteem and discontent among young people if they are not well-grounded.

Dealing with these difficulties can be troublesome, especially in the context of added pressure from your peers and the possible lack of sufficient guidance or support. Although parents are generally concerned about their children’s safety and well-being they don’t always comprehend the challenges faced by young people, particularly challenges involving technology and social media. The gap that is left in addressing modern issues which affect your personal development can and should be filled within the education system.  

Some of the most critical aspects of education take place outside of the classroom. Tunapuna Secondary has an important function in developing you academically, as well as, equipping you with necessary life skills and providing character-building opportunities which enable you to achieve your fullest potential. Programmes like ‘Girls to Women’ are a significant part of your overall development and journey to maturity, as they put you in a better position to tackle the obstacles that you will inevitably face. As Martin Luther King Jr once said, “Intelligence plus character—that is the goal of true education.” Though valuable and desirable, good grades, a decent job and a handsome salary pale in comparison to integrity, confidence, compassion and empathy. Developing character, self-esteem and strong values will guide your decisions and hold you steady when the going gets rough and believe me, it will.  Teenage years can be the most exhilarating yet confusing, of anyone’s life and it is important that you broaden your horizons and open yourselves to constant personal growth.

As young as you are, there are always opportunities for continuing character development. Give of your time to community initiatives or get involved in team sports or school clubs (I understand that congratulations are in order for the Under-17 National Netball champions. Well done!) The overwhelming feeling of accomplishment and pride that you, your school, family and friends feel as a result of your hard work are the fruit of your labour. Go further still, see how else you can be of value to your school, your community, your nation. Start a recycling drive, do a beach clean-up or run a 5K for charity. No one is too young to play a part. Others will benefit from your efforts and in turn, you will learn skills such as time management, teamwork and good communication, and values such as compassion, generosity and philanthropy all of which will be of benefit to you throughout your life.

“No man is an island entire unto itself” and as young women, it is critical that you understand the importance of giving back to your immediate and wider community, so that you can go on to empower and encourage neighbours, friends and family to do the same. In that way the cycle of development will be continuous.

All societies thrive as a result of the contribution of their members and they prosper because of the input of the community. Those who have a ‘me first’ mentality without consideration for the consequences of their actions, retard development of the wider society. Understanding these principles from a young age makes this complex world with challenging people and experiences easier to survive and thrive in.

Good planning is critical in advancing your personal growth. Most of you in this room have at some point thought about your future and perhaps set your heart and mind on a particular career path. The good news is that you were born into an era in which women are more visible, empowered and upfront about taking charge of their destiny, than at any other time in history. We have the right to vote, to work, to get an education—rights which we didn’t always have and in some countries, women still don’t.

Not so long ago, a female Head of State would have been inconceivable, but in your time, you have witnessed both a female Prime Minister and President in our small nation. Also today, both the Speaker of the House and the President of the Senate are women; your own distinguished alumnus, Jennifer Baptiste-Primus, is the Minister of Labour and Small Enterprise Development and also a former head of the trade union movement. Looking at the world around us we can identify many more examples of women who operate and excel in male-dominated environments.

Camille Wardropt Alleyne, Shirin Haque, Dolly Nicholas…are any of these names familiar to you? They are local pioneers and trailblazers in one of the last bastions of male dominance—Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics the (STEM) fields. Those academic disciplines are considered to be particularly important at this juncture of our history because they are needed to help significantly in solving the complex and pressing challenges of today and the future.

Yesterday the world celebrated the International Day of Women and Girls in Science—a day which recognizes the achievements of women and girls in scientific development and promotes greater participation in science by women and girls.

Globally, there are far more men than women working and studying in STEM fields. Here in Trinidad and Tobago we have done quite well in stoking interest in STEM, as female graduates outnumber male in almost every faculty of the University of the West Indies, including, the faculties of Medical Science, Science and Technology, and Food and Agriculture. We can certainly pat ourselves on the back because of our success in encouraging girls to access the STEM arena, but, although we are already ahead of many globally, there is still work to be done. Engineering is the only faculty in which men outnumber women 2:1. Ladies, the opportunity to complete a clean sweep of all faculties is up to you.  Go for it!

Women represent half of the world’s population and without their input, our nations are robbed of the great value and ability that we bring to the table. It is my hope that some of you will consider getting involved in the STEM fields and play a hands-on role in Trinidad and Tobago’s march of progress.

Future leaders of Trinidad and Tobago, your capacity to make wise decisions about your life must start now. When you envision the kind of woman that you want to become, consider what attributes will make you useful and productive in society. The environment for you to succeed has been forged by programmes such as Girls to Women, as well as by the example of the women who have gone before you.

My advice to you is to take seriously all that you learn in this seminar and those that follow, so that by the time you enter adulthood, you are poised and prepared to take on the world. You are counted among the largest cohort of young people the world has ever seen and given the potential I see brimming in this room, I eagerly await what each of you will bring to the table.  Bon appetite!