Dr. Elisabeth “Liz” Russell-McKenzie describes herself as a “Calabar baby”.
It was October 1958 when Calabar’s Chaplain the Reverend Horace Russell and his wife Beryl welcomed their first child, Elisabeth. She was born in the Chaplain’s residence on the school compound. Over the years “Liz” has retained the umbilical connection with Calabar.
Dr. Russell-McKenzie is now a practicing research scientist, part-time lecturer and mentor at Temple University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. But it was a fresh-faced 20-year old that joined the teaching staff at Calabar, teaching Biology part-time.
Despite being only a few years older than her 6th Form students Liz was undaunted. She quickly struck up a rapport with the boys and earned their respect, alongside their ill-concealed boyhood adoration.
Did not plan to become a teacher
Despite both parents being teachers, teaching was not in young Elisabeth’s plans. She wanted to be an agricultural economist or a research scientist. But on graduation from UWI with a zoology degree there were no clear opportunities in her preferred fields. It was then that teaching chose her.
She took up a full-time post at Calabar in September 1980 and remained there until 1988.
She remembers that period in Calabar’s history as being very uncertain, in that the school and its students were overwhelmed by the tense political climate of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. It was not uncommon for boys to be found carrying weapons to school – for their protection. There were those in the society who perceived the school’s green tie as expressing support for one of the rival political parties.
In her view it was the firm leadership of Principals Arthur Edgar, Roy Atkinson and Joseph Earle that took the school through those challenging years.
The boys presented their own challenges. She recalls being one of only a few teachers to get favorable responses out of some of the more difficult students. Her secret? Respect, empathy and a genuine interest in their welfare. These qualities earned her the love of her students and enabled smooth classroom interactions.
Deep Calabar roots
Dr. Russell-McKenzie, who had the surname Soares during most of her Calabar years, is from a deep-rooted Calabar family. Her grandfather, the late Rev. Cleveland Russell attended Calabar Theological Seminary in the 1920’s. Her uncle, Burchell Russell is a former Head Boy while her father, Rev. Dr. Horace Russell was a track standout in the late 1940’s. Much later her own brother, Jonathan, attended Calabar, while Russell matriarch, her mother Beryl, taught for many years, eventually becoming the first female to become Vice Principal at a top boys’ school in Jamaica.
Liz continues to be closely connected with the wider Calabar family. She attends as many Calabar-related events as her schedule allows – often travelling many miles to re-connect with her former students and give her support.
Committed to young people
Dr. Russell-McKenzie is concerned for young people and regards mentorship as a vital intervention that schools and alumni associations can provide to support their students, especially those who don’t have adequate parental support. She is a mentor herself and has responsibility for an undergraduate mentorship programme at Temple University. She stresses that mentorship is not about lecturing to young people, but rather listening to them and helping them to resolve their issues.
She currently serves as Project Coordinator/Administrator, Temple University Maximizing Access to Research Careers Undergraduate Student Training in Academic Research (MARC U*STAR) honors programme. In this role she is responsible for day-to-day coordination of projects and financial oversight of grants. The responsibility includes recruitment of potential scholarship recipients, one-on-one and group mentoring, personal counseling and career advising of scholarship recipients (undergraduate juniors and seniors preparing for biomedical/basic behavioral research careers). She is also involved in the placement of students in research labs, following up with mentors and liaising with evaluators and sponsors.
Liz expresses concern about the limited opportunities available to young persons in Jamaica. She proposes that the school and other stakeholders should explore non-traditional career paths for students. This could include developing the entrepreneurial potential among the young men. She believes that such an initiative could provide the path to success that many young persons do not currently see by way of the traditional professions.
COBA salutes Dr. Elisabeth J. Russell-McKenzie for her life-long commitment to Calabar and wishes her continued success in all her endeavours.