April 17, 2005 The University of the Virgin Islands professor of biology and former provost, Dr. Gwen-Marie Moolenaar, wishes for "people to understand how wonderful life is."
Dr. Moolenaar's youthful appearance and open demeanor do an excellent job masking the years of hard work and accomplishments she has to her name. She was born on St. Thomas and attended Sts. Peter and Paul Catholic School. When she talks about being raised here, she describes her experience as "color blind".
"When I was growing up, I never thought that I couldn't be a scientist or whatever I wanted to be." She says that the way she views herself, as a strong, competent woman, has been the most important thing when it comes to shaping her life and the way she lives. She never let the views of other people in the world dictate who she became or what she accomplished.
Thanks to this strong sense of identity and ample amounts of hard work, she got her bachelor's degree in 1962 and then in 1972 became the fist black woman ever to receive a Ph.D. in neurophysiology. What exactly was she doing for a decade that earned her a Ph.D. in neurophysiology?
First she got her master's degree from Long Island University in New York and then took a teaching position for two years at Marymont Manhattan College. In 1966, she came back to St. Thomas to teach at Charlotte Amalie High School. While at the high school, she started a quiz show for the students of four local high schools. In the show, the students were asked about a variety of topics ranging from current local events to national news coverage. During this time, she was also awarded the Helen Eisenhower Bronze Metal, an honor given to someone who places honor, duty and achievement above self.
When she finished her Ph.D., she did research for a while at Cornell University before going to Howard University, where she received tenure in 1977. In her 15 years there, she garnered numerous awards and grants.
After she won the Visiting Scientist Award from the National Institutes of Health to come to UVI from 1987 to 1988, she decided to leave Howard and return permanently to the island. At the time, her choice was influenced by her personal life. She was a single parent with a 6-year-old daughter, whom she wanted to raise in the St. Thomas community — the type of culture where, "people would know her name, and she had a sense of belonging." Moolenaar said she felt this was lacking in the states. Although at the time her friends thought she was insane to leave a medical school, she knew that her life experiences "B.A." (Before Ashley, as Moolenaar lovingly refers to it while laughing) were fantastic already, and that she needed to put her daughter first. Moolenaar says she thinks that she made the right choice and felt vindicated in her decision last year, when Ashley thanked her for making this decision on her behalf.
U.V.I. made her a professor in the Science Division, and true to her community devoted track record, she started creating new opportunities for the people attending the school by setting up the pre-med/pre-graduate club. Eventually she was promoted to the position of vice-president, and now provost, though she is currently on sabbatical.
Provost is a job she loves, and she feels it serves an important role in the university's mission. Moolenaar happily defines this mission as being, "To fulfill the requirements of higher education, thus promoting economic and social development in the region." This purpose sits very well with her, and she sees herself fitting into this picture as someone who makes a difference in the lives of the people who go to U.V.I.
Moolenaar has lived what she preaches, and in the past she has served as a guest speaker at civic functions, and as a consultant to the local Department of Health. In addition to that, she has served on the board of directors for the St. Thomas Historic Trust and the League of Women Voters. Her family has always done volunteer work, and although both her mother, Ruth Moolenaar, and aunt, Ulla Muller, are retired, they are still active in the community.
This drive to help others can be easily understood by anyone who talks to Moolenaar for a few minutes because, in her words, "A life that isnt purpose driven is such a waste."
Aside from the numerous academic activities in her past, Moolenaar made time to experience the world — B.A. — traveling all around the Caribbean, to Europe and even making it to parts of Africa, but she admits with a grin, "I've never been to China." What does she take away from experiencing such a variety of different people, places, traditions, music, architecture and customs? "The world is a wonderful place, and it is made up of people," she asserts.
This seems like such a simple conclusion, but she elaborates on this idea, explaining that nothing was really shocking to her in her travels because she was already accustomed to diversity from growing up on St. Thomas. Seeing the world taught her that people and their ways are beautiful, and that it's comforting to know that our differences are only superficial: "We all feel love; we all feel anguish."
As a woman who has lived her life full of drive and service, giving her time to her family and community, she has lived by her ideals and meets challenges with pleasant determination. This coming September, the charming Gwen-Marie Moolenaar has her sights set on relaxing (well, sort of). Retirement is in the works, and it sounds like she's looking forward to it. Her plans include taking up the piano again, reading more Agatha Christie and philosophy books, and writing a book that will teach children how to read Latin.
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