Growing up in Trinidad and tobago, David Ramjohn ’04 had big dreams but little means. Thanks to hard work and a relentless sense of optimism, he overcame some incredible odds to find success at the College and his Caribbean home.
by Jason Ryan
Illustration by Charis Tsevis
Images by Kibwe Brathwaite
The best advice David Ramjohn ’04 ever received was from a taxi driver. The man was also his stepfather – one of two taxi-driving stepfathers that helped raise Ramjohn on Trinidad. The advice was simple and straightforward: “Read everything you can get your hands on.”
And so Ramjohn did. At every opportunity he consumed words, whether reading a book in school or spying a scrap of torn paper while in the lavatory. Everything counted.
Among Ramjohn’s favorite things to read were Western novels by Louis L’Amour. Landscapes inhabited by cowboys and Indians were certainly foreign to a boy living on the southernmost island in the Caribbean, yet Ramjohn identified with the characters in L’Amour’s books, believing the most noble of them as “the ideal of what a man should be.”
Should Ramjohn have wanted to read something more relevant to his own life, perhaps a story by Horatio Alger would have beenmore appropriate. In many of Alger’s tales, young men transcend poverty through honest labor and perseverance, earning themselves comfortable and reputable places in society. Oftentimes, these humble and hardworking boys receive critical assistance from benefactors that happen to enter their lives. Alger’s stories were not precisely tales of rags to riches, but rather rags to respectability.
Ramjohn did not dress in rags as a boy, per se, but his childhood and upbringing were humble and sometimes hard. Beyond his family’s lack of money, he missed the influence of his biological father and suffered from deafness in one ear, although this diagnosis was not made until he was an adult. These deficiencies did not stop Ramjohn from becoming a top student with big dreams. Ramjohn learned from an early age that opportunity was available in life so long as he was bold and determined enough to seize it. Sometimes, he learned, opportunity beckoned from faraway places, and one had to be patient for it to arrive.
Entangled in Red Tape
David Ramjohn was not born a Ramjohn, but with the simpler surname of John. Ram was a middle name given to him by his aunt, in honor of a Hindu deity (about 40 percent of Trinidad and Tobago’s population is of Indian descent). Due to a clerical error, these names were combined upon the registration of his birth in 1968, leaving David the only person in his family with the surname of Ramjohn.
Ramjohn did not discover the mistake until he was 11 years old. By then it was too late, or too troublesome and tedious, to do anything about it. In any case, this moniker mix-up was only a taste of things to come, serving to steel Ramjohn for other disappointments to come his way courtesy of government bureaucracy and plain bad luck.
Ramjohn grew up in the seaside town of Carenage, just outside Trinidad and Tobago’s capital of Port of Spain, his family of nine squeezing into a rented three-room house. Each evening the living room was transformed into a dormitory, the furniture pushed aside and a mattress stuffed with coconut husks spread upon the floor. Ramjohn describes his bed as “the most uncomfortable thing you could ever imagine.”
He was an acolyte in the local Catholic church and was counting on securing a scholarship to one of Trinidad’s finest secondary schools, St. Mary’s College, in Port of Spain. Because of administrative policy changes, the scholarship was discontinued. Ramjohn was, however, at least accepted to the school.
Yet at about the same time, his family moved inland to the town of Arima. Though only 20 miles from the capital, horrible traffic on Trinidad’s roads forced Ramjohn to leave home before 5:30 each morning to try and make it to school on time. He often missed his first class entirely.
The commute was not Ramjohn’s only impediment to success at St. Mary’s. The family’s new three-bedroom home in Arima, owned by a brother, was unfinished. The house lacked electricity, which made it difficult to study at night. By virtue of the traffic, Ramjohn would not return home from school until darkness was near. Should he want to read or do homework, he would need to use a hurricane lantern. Beyond giving off light, the lantern hissed loudly as it operated, disturbing others in the small house, especially when they were trying to sleep.
Ramjohn, who had hoped to study medicine after high school, saw his dreams of a top-notch university education slipping away. His grades were suffering, and he feared he would not perform well on upcoming exams should his circumstances not change. At Christmastime, the 17-year-old sat down with his mother and stepfather and explained that he needed to be closer to school and to better concentrate on his studies. In others words, he was moving out.
“It was quite a bold move,” remembers Ramjohn.
So bold, in fact, that his mother threatened to break both his legs should he follow through on this idea. She suspected that he was going to live with his girlfriend. In fact, Ramjohn had appealed to the priest at his former church in Carenage for help finding housing and had been offered a room in the home of an elderly parishioner. Carrying two garbage bags packed with all his possessions, and seeing through his mother’s bluff, Ramjohn moved. His new home had strict rules: no parties, no girlfriend, study three hours a day and attend church once a week.
The new arrangement was a perfect but short-lived match. Three weeks later, Ramjohn’s mother complained to the priest and threatened to call the police. Ramjohn moved out of the parishioner’s house and landed in the only other place he knew to go – the home of his girlfriend’s aunt, also in Carenage.
“My parents literally drove me into what they thought I was doing in the first place,” says Ramjohn.
In this new home, Ramjohn enjoyed many parties and many visits from his girlfriend. He also did poorly on his exams.
Shortly after he graduated from secondary school in 1986 – his hope of attending medical school dashed – a St. Mary’s teacher helped Ramjohn find a job within Trinidad and Tobago’s agricultural ministry researching commercial fisheries. Ramjohn found the work captivating. Each week he would accompany commercial fishing crews to monitor their catches and inspect the seas surrounding Trinidad and Tobago. Due to his enthusiasm, in short order Ramjohn became an expert on sharks and general fish taxonomy.
In 1991, approximately five years into his career, the fisheries division nominated Ramjohn for a college scholarship. He was initially ecstatic for the chance to finally earn his degree. That elation quickly turned to disappointment when the agricultural ministry decided the scholarship’s selection process needed to be more inclusive and postponed the decision.
A year later he was again nominated for the scholarship and this time received it. A week after beginning classes, however, the ministry suddenly revoked the scholarship. What’s more, these scholarship disappointments followed an attempt by Ramjohn to become an air traffic controller that faltered after he failed a physical exam on account of his deafness in one ear. That’s not to mention Ramjohn’s attempt in 1990 to earn his boat captain’s license. Halfway through that three-month course, Trinidad experienced an attempted coup, ending the certification process.
Ramjohn could not catch a break. Having no place else to go following the revocation of the scholarship, he returned meekly to his job with the fisheries division.
“I threw myself back into my work. There was nothing else I could do,” he says.
Coworkers and friends told Ramjohn he was exceptionally strong for weathering these setbacks. Should such indignity have occurred to them, they said, they surely would have quit. Yet Ramjohn refused to be crestfallen by events he could not control.
“I have no regrets. Absolutely none,” he says. “Not for the choices I made, not for the choices made for me.”
Coming to America
As Ramjohn’s expertise on local marine life increased, his mentor within the fisheries division encouraged him to write a book. In 1999, Checklist of Coastal and Marine Fishes of Trinidad and Tobago was published, listing 1,200 species. The book cemented Ramjohn’s reputation as an expert for identifying, classifying and determining the age of local aquatic species.
“I was pretty good at what I did,” says Ramjohn. “I just didn’t have the piece of paper that said so.”
About the same time, Ramjohn was assigned to host a visiting team of researchers from South Carolina’s Department of Natural Resources. Ramjohn struck up a friendship with the researchers and, as a gift of gratitude, the researchers sent Ramjohn a T-shirt when they returned home. Weeks later Ramjohn was attending a fisheries conference in Belize, wearing the T-shirt, when a man named George Sedberry, now an adjunct professor at the College, tapped him on the shoulder and introduced himself as a colleague of the researchers from South Carolina. Sedberry couldn’t believe Ramjohn did not have a college degree. Hoping to rectify this, he offered Ramjohn the chance to enroll at the College of Charleston while working as a graduate assistant at the natural resources department. Of course, a graduate assistant with no undergraduate degree posed some problems for those pushing the paperwork in South Carolina.
“Always so near, but so far,” says Ramjohn. “That had been the story of my life.”
A solution was found, however, and Ramjohn said farewell to his wife and family in Trinidad to begin, at age 32, his ever-elusive college education. It was not an entirely smooth transition. His assistantship would only cover the tuition the College charged for in-state students, not the amount charged to those students who hailed from out-of-state homes, let alone out of the country. As classes began in the autumn of 2000, Ramjohn was in debt almost $7,000. He appealed for help to Jack Parson, the College’s director of the Office of International Education and a professor of political science. Parson obliged the man from Trinidad, granting him a scholarship normally reserved for students who had completed at least one semester and established a 3.0 grade point average. Looking Ramjohn over, Parson said he was willing to grant the scholarship on a “leap of faith.”
“What impressed me about David was his commitment to the program and his desire to excel in the process. This was his one chance to widen his horizons and gain the means to open new opportunities for him back home in Trinidad. I thought I saw in him an intensity of commitment and perseverance that deserved a chance,” says Parson.
Four months later, following the close of the fall semester, Ramjohn triumphantly returned to Parson’s office with his grades. Ramjohn had earned a 4.0.
“David,” said Parson, “I had no doubt.”
Back to School
Ramjohn’s remaining years at the College were similarly successful. Beyond excelling in the classroom, he was a copyeditor for the George Street Observer and served on the College’s Honor Board, becoming its chairman for two years. Among his favorite professors at the College was Nan Morrison. Given Morrison’s tough and demanding reputation on campus, fellow students – and even professors – had warned him not to enroll in her English courses. He did so anyway and treasured the experience. In Morrison’s class, students were asked to write one-page expositions, “to put their thoughts together with clarity and continuity.”
“I will never forget her. That training, I could not get anywhere else,” says Ramjohn, explaining that on Trinidad, most higher education is technical.
Based on his experience at the College, Ramjohn is a champion of a liberal arts and sciences curriculum.
“Give me enough time and I can do any person’s job,” he says of the practicality of a liberal arts education. “I was taught how to think. I was taught how to learn. You can’t beat that.”
Another favorite professor was Herb Silverman. The mathematics professor even once gave Ramjohn some money to help him pay his tuition and bills.
“He, unlike many of my other students, had a long-term plan and knew how to execute it. He knew what he wanted,” says Silverman, recalling Ramjohn a decade after he taught him in class. “He seemed like an imposing figure, and I could envision him being successful in life due to the combination of his academic skills, motivation and drive.”
Ramjohn is exceedingly grateful to many others at the College, too. For him, it is the humanity evident in campus life that defines the College of Charleston.
“It’s not the buildings, it’s not the reputation – it’s the people who work and teach there,” says Ramjohn. “It’s the people who get students interested and to believe in themselves. For me, it was Jeri Cabot, Hollis France, Ijuana Gadsden, Suzette Stille, Charles Biernbaum, Reid Wiseman and many others.”
While Ramjohn was excelling at the College, his long-distance marriage suffered. Ramjohn would divorce while attending the College, and he does not shy away from describing the emotional devastation he experienced over that incident. It was the lowest point in his life, though it ultimately helped define him as a man.
“When you’re tested like this, all the chaff gets burned away. You find out who you really are,” says Ramjohn. “What I was left with was pure me. As painful as it was, I discovered myself.”
As one of Ramjohn’s favorite poems, “If,” by Rudyard Kipling, reads in part:
If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss …
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And – which is more – you’ll be a Man, my son!
A Hero’s Homecoming
Upon graduation, Ramjohn was awarded the Bishop Robert Smith Award – the highest honor an undergraduate student can receive at the College, recognizing exceptional leadership and scholarship. As flattering as such an award is, Ramjohn says its importance pales in comparison to the value of his education.
“I wasn’t at the College to pass exams, I wasn’t there to get a 4.0, I was there to learn,” he says. “The As came because I spent my time in the classroom, absorbing everything I could.”
Due to the poor health of his stepfather, Ramjohn returned home to Trinidad after graduation. Beyond wanting to reunite with his family, Ramjohn wanted to help his country. Trinidad and Tobago, he says, suffers from “brain drain,” with many of its brightest minds leaving the country to find opportunity elsewhere. Ramjohn felt an obligation to stem this outflowing tide, to help his nation experience “brain gain.” When he returned home, his friends and family gave him a hero’s welcome. His stepfather’s health even improved. And within his own life, he’s come to experience joy from remarrying and buying his own home, one devoid of coconut husk mattresses.
He found work in the government again, this time within the Environmental Management Authority. In six years he became an expert on the country’s environmental regulations and was promoted to executive technical assistant to the authority’s CEO. In 2013 he left the government to become CEO of green energy company Synergy Resources Limited Trinidad and Tobago.
Though green energy is a growing industry in many parts of the world, in Trinidad and Tobago it has faced a tougher sell. The nation, the richest in the Caribbean, benefits from substantial oil and natural gas reserves. These resources – and related government subsidies – mean fuel and electricity are cheap for its residents. There is little incentive to embrace renewable energy and energy efficiency measures, though Ramjohn notes that in neighboring Caribbean countries, where his company also does business, the situation is much different.
“Trinidad and Tobago is the most hostile environment for trying to do what this company does,” says Ramjohn. “But it is something we need to do.”
Should we not collectively alter our energy production and consumption habits, says Ramjohn, “we will run out of food, air, water and energy. It’s very anthropocentric of us to think that we can save the planet, or even that the planet needs us to save it. It would be more honest and accurate to say that we are trying to save our place on this planet.”
If such change seems a tall order, Ramjohn is at least uniquely suited to tackle this challenge. No stranger to setbacks, Ramjohn possesses a determination and optimism many would judge critical to changing minds and habits. He proved as much a decade ago when he earned his degree and was recognized as one of the College’s most impressive and tenacious students.
“I was proud of David at graduation,” says Parson, “since I knew the whole circumstance of his time at the College.”
Parson recalls the diplomatic finesse Ramjohn displayed when he participated with other students in a simulation of a meeting of the African Union, representing the country of Botswana. He remembers, too, Ramjohn’s professionalism when serving on the College’s Honor Board. In Parson’s eyes, Ramjohn is most obviously a gentleman and a scholar, yet Parson also takes pains to recognize Ramjohn’s resilience and persistence. Perhaps surprisingly, the professor emeritus of political science chooses to characterize his well-mannered former student as a bruising running back, charging fearlessly upfield for a score.
Says Parson of the unstoppable man from Trinidad and Tobago: “David Ramjohn grasped the opportunity that was present, ran with it and spiked the ball over the goal line.”