|Blanka Bednarz helps Jean-Paul with technique before he performs in a master class with the Atma Trio, of which Bednarz is a member.
To say that Jean-Paul Woodroffe ’08 is all mixed up is no joke and no insult. He’ll proudly proclaim to you that he is a “Dougla,” that is, a person from Trinidad who is mainly of African and East Indian descent. But he reminds you that his surname is Scottish and notes that he also had ancestors from Syria and Spain. Yes, call him a Dougla, but don’t call him black, despite his dark complexion. He’ll look around to see to whom you’re referring.
Growing up in a diverse island nation of 1.3 million people, Woodroffe says, “I never thought about what I was until I came to the United States. Race is really not an issue in Trinidad. Everyone is Trini first and everything else after. You are more conscious of race here, and I have had to adjust. But Dickinson is much better than other places in the United States, so my friends from home who attend other colleges have told me. I appreciate the diversity that Dickinson has and that it is trying to be even more diverse.”
While his racial origins are hard to nail down, so is everything else about him. “Somebody told me that I can’t be categorized, that I don’t fit into any stereotype,” he says with a grin. He’s an economics and mathematics double major whose violin-playing skills are so fine that the students who live on his hall (he’s a resident adviser) ask him to play for them in the common room.
A typical Jean-Paul sighting in winter: There he is, bopping down High Street wearing a puffy black down jacket, the lenses of his glasses dark, a violin case dangling from a shoulder strap. “You look like you’re so gangsta, but you play the violin,” students say when they spy him.
Most likely he’s headed into the Weiss Center for a lesson. He carries a fifth class—violin lessons with Blanka Bednarz, artist faculty in strings—every semester. “She is helping me to improve my technique, listening skills and my sensitivity to the composer. I’m working on a concerto now, Russian style, with lots of accidentals.”
Woodroffe also is hoping to find the time to join the college choir. For two years after high school Woodroffe, 21, studied music theory, worked at the petroleum company where his father is employed and earned his black belt in karate. He also performed in musical groups—an orchestra, a choir, and a rhythm section in which he banged on steel barrels and old car rims, á la the Broadway show STOMP.
“Trinidadians are very musically oriented,” he explains, “and our hybrid culture shows itself in our music as well. We have strong Indian and African influences, and Spanish as well. It’s very rhythmic. I like rhythm,” he says, tapping his fingers in a Soca beat on the tabletop.
But he also likes philosophy and thinking deep thoughts. Naturally he found his way to the Union Philosophical Society, where he can engage in debates about current events. “I like to ask people why they do the things they do. Why does right and wrong matter? Is there an obligation to truth? Is there a God? I go to as many lectures as possible, take notes, and see if there are links between ideas.”
As an Engage the World Fellow, a scholarship that provides him financial support for study abroad and a service project, he has lots of opportunities to interact with speakers who come to campus, like Bill McKibben, author of the college’s 2004 Common Reading Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age. Fellows also attend fall presidential seminars with William G. Durden ’71.
“The president encourages us to think about big ideas and make links,” says Woodroffe. “He gave us articles to read about the 10 most dangerous ideas of our time. The great thing about a liberal-arts education is the exposure to many things and making the connections.”
This connectivity is what drew him to Dickinson to prepare for a career in predicting the future and risk management, as an actuary to be exact. Back in Trinidad he had read on an actuarial-science-association Web site that studying the liberal arts provides the best preparation.
“You get a sense of how things work together and learn about different fields and make links between those fields that people who specialize in one area might not be able to make,” says Woodroffe. “If you have an interdisciplinary background, you can make accurate predictions.”
Predicting his own future, Woodroffe says he will stay in the United States to take the slew of actuarial exams to gain certification, then return to his beloved Trinidad. “I want to get into investment banking, eventually,” he says.
In the meantime, one of the things he would like most is to teach his Trini sense of rhythm to his Dickinson friends, bringing his own version of Stomp to campus. “All I need is some scrap metal and some rhythmically inclined Dickinsonians,” he says with a chuckle. •