As late as the beginning of August, Bessie Lowe was still holding out hope that she would be living in a Wingate University residence hall this fall, starting off her pursuit of a nursing degree with at least some in-person classes.
Instead, the freshman has lived the entire semester with a friend in her native Bahamas, navigating the spotty internet service in Hope Town, Elbow Cay, to make (very nearly) straight A’s as her first semester of college winds down.
Challenges are nothing new for Lowe, who has maintained an optimistic outlook and a strong work ethic despite a couple of arduous years. She’s been hit by wave after wave of bad news: the death of her father, the brunt of Hurricane Dorian, the coronavirus pandemic.
In April of 2018, Lowe’s father, Maitland Lowe, a local fishing guide known as “Bonefish Dundee,” lost his battle with cancer. His death took an emotional toll on Lowe and left her mother scrambling to provide for the family.
“It hit my family and our whole island hard,” Lowe says. “He would take the shirt off of his own back for you if you needed it. My father was the kindest person I knew.”
Less than a year and a half after her father’s death, disaster struck. As idyllic as living in the Bahamas can be – “You can go fishing, conching, looking for crawfish, just go to the beach whenever you want,” Lowe says – the downside can be devastating. Sitting on the northern edge of the Caribbean, the Bahamas has been in the path of several major storms over the years, and Elbow Cay in particular sits unguarded on the edge of the Abaco islands, facing nothing but the wide expanse of the Atlantic Ocean.
In September of 2019, Lowe lived through the worst storm to hit the island since record-keeping began. Hurricane Dorian pummeled Elbow Cay, wrecking Lowe’s house and forcing her to live through an unnerving night of terror. Lowe had evacuated to a friend’s house, where she and more than a dozen other people sat on a wet floor while the house shook and rain dripped in.
After Dorian’s eye passed over, things got really nasty.
“I did feel a little bit scared,” she says. “When we were in the house, it felt like you were on an airplane, the pressure. Your ears were just popping. The doors were blowing in. … The house was shaking. It was kind of crazy.”
After a while, things calmed down a little, so the group, having eaten very little during the ordeal, started making sandwiches. Then they heard what they thought was an explosion. The top half of a large oak tree snapped in two, tearing a hole in the roof.
That prompted them to seek shelter elsewhere. Taking two elderly neighbors with them, Lowe and her friend broke into a nearby rental house that had suffered much less damage.
“It wasn’t too safe, but it was the only option,” Lowe says. “The wind was still blowing at least 50 miles per hour, and me and my friend had to help two 70-year-olds climb over a bunch of fallen electricity poles on the way to the house.”
Over at Lowe’s house, part of the roof had been ripped off, sending rain and sand pouring in. Clothes, furniture, appliances – just about everything was ruined. Lowe and her family evacuated on a seaplane to Florida, where she eventually crammed an entire senior year of high school into five months online.
Maitland’s death meant the family had to pinch pennies, and the double whammy of Dorian and the coronavirus pandemic haven’t helped. With tourism down, Lowe’s mother, who works at a grocery store, has seen her hours greatly reduced.
“Money has been tight since he passed, and my mom had to take on a second job cleaning houses to make up for it,” Lowe says. “It’s been hard, but we’ve been recovering.”
Since the Lowes don’t have homeowners’ insurance, the rebuild has been slow. Volunteers from Samaritan’s Purse Canada helped reconstruct the roof, and other volunteers have rebuilt other areas of the house. The kitchen still needs work, so Lowe lives with a friend.
Compared with the past two years, attending college online isn’t the greatest hardship for Lowe. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy. For one thing, with the Bahamas still in the process of rebuilding, Internet access on Abaco is unreliable.
“Sometimes it’ll go out for an hour or two, or sometimes it will go out for a day and a half at a time,” Lowe says. “I’ll have to try to use my phone service to get an e-mail out to my professors that I won’t make it to class and see if they can send me a summary of what we went over and the recordings for the day.”
There are other difficulties as well, such as staying motivated. “It’s kind of hard when you’re not in a physical class or there’s not a teacher all the time,” Lowe says. “Especially in your asynchronous courses, you can fall behind or get lazy doing your work.”
That hasn’t really been a problem for Lowe, who has done a good job of keeping to a schedule and has been doing exceptional work. As of last week, she was as close to having straight A’s as she could be. And she’s determined to raise her 89.9 in Bio 101 above a 90.
“I have no doubts she'll be able to get an A for the semester,” says her biology teacher, Dr. Melissa Fox. “She will ensure it happens.”
As difficult as remote learning can be, technology also provides students with a way to catch up when, for example, the internet slows to a crawl mid-lecture.
“She has been a very responsible student and has reached out ahead of time when her internet connectivity has been spotty on the island,” Fox says. “Thankfully, she hasn’t missed any of the information, as she can catch up on the online content when the internet comes back on, and she is able to watch the replay of our synchronous class time, as those are recorded too.”
In addition to nursing, Lowe has an interest in psychology, and Dr. Matt Davis, who teaches Lowe’s Psychology 101 course, says she’s been an active presence in class.
“Bessie is eager to speak up and offer her thoughts or answer discussion questions,” he says. “She is exactly the type of dedicated, curious and hard-working student we love to have in psychology courses.”
For the past several months, Lowe has been working with Wingate's Office of International Programs to get ready to live and study on campus. This week, she is in Nassau, the capital of the Bahamas, interviewing to get her student visa. If it is granted, she plans on arriving in North Carolina in early January, ready for classes to start on Jan. 21.
And on Feb. 1, she’ll finally be able to sit in a real Wingate classroom, as in-person instruction returns.
“I’m really excited,” Lowe says.
Nov. 24, 2020