Forty years ago, Denzil Streete was just a dreamer, a young bibliophile destined to explore the world outside the confines of Morvant, Laventille.
Today, Streete is the senior associate dean and director of the Office of Graduate Education at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), one of the most prestigious institutes in and outside the US. He took up the role last week. His mandate includes the oversight of some 100 graduate programmes, catering to approximately 7,000 graduate students.
MIT, in a statement, said Streete brings vast experience to an important role “as a leader in critical aspects of graduate student life and learning, including admissions and recruitment, diversity, academic success, and graduate student support.”
Newsday spoke with Streete, who was in the process of moving to the Boston area of Massachusetts.
He said, “(It’s) an honour to have the opportunity to shape the environment that will allow groundbreaking research and exploration that in the future will impact society in fundamental ways.
“Over the years many of MIT’s former PhD students (have gone) on to win Nobel prizes.”
Ian Waitz, vice chancellor for undergraduate and graduate education, described Streete in the statement as “a natural collaborator and passionate advocate for students.”
Waitz said, “This will serve us well as we navigate some very complex issues, like graduate student unionisation and the impacts of the recent (Supreme Court) decision on the use of race in admissions.”
The US Supreme Court controversially ruled in June to ban the consideration of race as a factor for university admissions in a practice known as affirmative action.
Streete told Newsday, “My goal has always been to create educational structures that provide opportunity to students like my former self.
“So I have been particularly focused on diversity in PhD programmes at the elite institutions, making sure that the student from an underrepresented and underprivileged background has just as much opportunity to access these institutions and contribute to the creation of knowledge as anyone else.
Streete holds his PhD in comparative and international education, specialising in the economics of education from Columbia University and has an undergraduate degree in economics from St Francis University.
After graduating from Queen's Royal College, Port of Spain, Streete migrated to Brooklyn, New York, to attend St Francis College, before pursuing his PhD at Columbia University.
He then moved within state to Syracuse University to take up his first teaching job.
His next big career move was to Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, where he worked as assistant dean for graduate student development and diversity, before joining the University of California, Berkeley, as assistant vice-provost for graduate studies at the University of California, Berkeley.
At MIT, Streete told Newsday, he will “have the opportunity to oversee the graduate education enterprise at an institution (that) consistently ranks in the top five of universities worldwide irrespective of ranking system.”
He noted that there are more graduate students than undergraduate students at the institute.
“My purview will be to ensure these graduate students are well taken care of, from the quality of their campus experiences to the ability of the institution to support their academic, research and personal needs.”
As limitless as career growth seems, Streete says he recognises the role his native country has played in shaping him and providing opportunities.
“As I reflect on the education system in Trinidad and Tobago, I am both thankful that such a public system could see a boy from Morvant rise through the ranks (to obtain a PhD), and be in the administration at some of the most prestigious universities in the world,” he said.
“I am, however, worried that my story continues to be the exception rather than the rule.”
As someone vastly experienced in the fields of education and related studies, Streete shared a privileged opinion on potential tweaks and improvements to the system back at home.
“I’d like to see our education system take a turn towards one that’s trauma-informed and equity-centered.
“When it’s commonplace that a student at Mucurapo Secondary has a classmate who is the son or daughter of business magnates from the west and the quality of resources and facilities government secondary schools can rival those of the denominational schools, I would be content that we have truly created a system that is equitable
He said one’s success should not be disproportionately tied to the performance at an exam at 11 years old, a system, he noted, “coincidentally never seems to negatively impact the wealthy."
“There are so many brilliant minds who at that age receive the signal that they are not worthy because the serendipity of an exam result meant that they were doomed to a secondary school with frequent disruptions, lack of basic facilities and quality teaching.”
Streete, an avid traveller, said he tries to visit home at least once annually.
“I miss, of course, the love and connection with family and friends, but I also miss the unbridled creativity of our people which we so often take for granted,” he said.
“Crime continues to worry me, but I am hopeful sooner rather than later we’d stop looking to politicians to care more for us than we do for ourselves and will take our safety into our own hands and re-create the society we inherently are.”
Streete has long attributed his success to his love for books, and he continues to promote physical books as a tool to open minds and ultimately improve lives.
“I have always been passionate about reading. For me as a child, reading the encyclopedia and any book I can get my hands on, allowed me to dream about travelling the world far beyond Morvant.
“In the years since I left I was continually worried about children I encountered, for whom leisure reading didn’t exist, and then I saw the paltry offerings at what was called a library at a primary school.”
Several years ago Streete rallied his friends and began a book drive to donate books to local primary schools.
“It was interrupted by the pandemic and me living on the west coast of the USA where shipping to the Caribbean proved rather difficult,” he said, adding that he looks forward to relaunching the initiative in the coming months, with the aim of collecting at least 500 books for two new schools in Trinidad.
After the pandemic began, Streete started another initiative, offering scholarships annually to 60 students from the Morvant area.
“I have committed that those students who started off with those scholarships, just after they started primary schools, will continue to be supported by my efforts through their completion of secondary school. So much of my academic success depended on someone else cheering me on from the sidelines and I hope that this initiative will encourage at least one of those students to aspire for the stars. It will be a worthy investment if that happens.”