Thursday, November 29, 2007

In Haiti, a Rare Leg Up

From the issue dated November 30, 2007


In Haiti, a Rare Leg Up


The Chronicle of Higher Education

Port-Au-Prince, Haiti

(Read the original article here).

College students are rare here, in the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, where residents live without running water and electricity, and barefoot children live alongside garbage-clogged open sewers.

But on a recent afternoon in one of the most-impoverished areas in Haiti's capital, Suzie Pascal, a third-year engineering student at the State University of Haiti who is at the top of her class, returned home. As she walked down the dusty path that leads to her family's small, cinderblock home, her mother, Marie-Rose Henriette Joint, stepped out to greet her.

"I'm so proud of her," says Ms. Henriette, wiping sweat from her forehead in the searing heat. She had had a long day during which she had earned about $6 by selling an assortment of basic goods — eggs, detergent, cooking oil, and matches — from her home. She made more money when she sold used clothing at a local market. But in 2004, a fire burned down the market and Ms. Henriette's stall. Soon, however, she managed to start the home business.

The mother's spirit is reflected in her daughter. "What keeps me motivated?" says Ms. Pascal, a slim, 25-year-old with rows of tight braids. "My mother and her hard work and determination to always manage to make a living and allow me to study. I can't fail."

Today, Ms. Pascal is one of 80 students supported by the Haitian Education & Leadership Program, Haiti's largest university-scholarship program, which provides merit scholarships to students in the top 10 percent of their high-school classes in the country's poorest areas. On average, the scholarships pay $4,100, which covers tuition, textbooks, and school supplies, basic living expenses, an internship program, and academic and social counseling.

The nonprofit organization, known by its acronym, HELP, is now based in New York, where a donor offered office space and the group's head of development, Rosemarie Stupel, lives. The organization started in 1997 when Isemonde Josephe, a straight-A high-school student from Port-au-Prince's notorious Cité Soleil slum, asked her teacher, Conor Bohan, for a $30 loan to attend secretarial school. Aware of Ms. Joseph's desire to become a doctor, not a secretary, Mr. Bohan offered to pay for her first year's medical-school tuition and textbooks. In 2005, Ms. Joseph received her M.D. and now practices at Port-au-Prince's Gheskio Center, Haiti's premier organization for AIDS research and treatment.

"We might think that $4,000 to cover a student's college education is damn cheap, but that might as well be $400,000 for these students," says Mr. Bohan, who sought out other donors soon after helping Ms. Joseph. Today money for the scholarships comes from individual donors, the London-based Rausing Trust, the U.S. embassy, and Yéle Haiti, a foundation led by the hip-hop star Wyclef Jean.

HELP recruits its scholarship students nationwide, with a focus on finding top students at schools in the hilly countryside or poor urban areas. "Our goal is to get to the most overlooked areas, no matter how remote," says Garry Delice, HELP's director and a former principal at the high school where Mr. Bohan once taught. "We depend a lot on four-wheel drive to get around."

The program is run from a converted house in a well-to-do Port-au-Prince neighborhood. In the reception area, two walls are crowded with framed diplomas and documents showing students' names on deans' lists. Further inside, ceiling fans keep students cool in a study hall, which features long, wooden desks and a small library stocked with basic textbooks. A computer lab has 12 desktop machines wired with satellite Internet, rare in a country where computers are scarce and electricity is often undependable. At the center, batteries and an AC/DC inverter store electricity when it is available from the grid, and then provide power when the grid is down

On a recent afternoon, Ms. Pascal busily tapped away at one of the lab's computers. "This is where you'll find me most days," she says.

Ms. Pascal's morning starts at dawn, when she draws several buckets of water from a small well for bathing. Her commute is an hourlong ride on a sweltering, packed "tap tap," the ubiquitous, run-down pickups that wind through the capital's congested streets to provide transportation for residents. After classes, Ms. Pascal goes straight to the HELP center. "Finding light to study by is not easy in Haiti," says Ms. Pascal.

One of Ms. Pascal's ideal postgraduation jobs would be as an engineer at a local telecommunications company. Although the chances of that are not certain, Ms. Pascal's confidence is unflinching, a trait shared by many of the scholarship students. The program's graduates are all employed, according to administrators, and earn an average annual salary of $8,000 — more than 17 times Haiti's $450 per capita income.

Poverty and decades of political instability have created a severe brain drain in Haiti, with many of the country's college-educated citizens leaving for better opportunities in wealthier countries. The exodus, says Mr. Delice, has Haiti desperate for professionals, with many local companies importing qualified workers from countries such as the Philippines. With HELP now established, companies get in touch with the program when they have jobs and internships. HELP does not put any limits on where graduates can go, but does try to connect them to local companies.

But more-developed countries hold the same allure for HELP graduates that they do for all Haitians. Says Smyrne Saintil, a scholarship student in her final year of law school in Port-au-Prince: "All you hear about is what's wrong with our country." But as yet, only two HELP graduates have left Haiti.

Another of the program's students is Daphné Charles, a second-year agronomy student at the top of her class, for the second time, at the University of Notre Dame of Haiti, in Les Cayes in southern Haiti. Immaculately dressed and articulate, Ms. Charles hopes to build up enough expertise to help start a series of sustainable farms, which would create cooperatives of small farmers so they could improve harvesting techniques. More than two-thirds of the Haitian population survive on agriculture, although just barely. The HELP center tries to set an example by using sustainable practices, recycling rainwater for toilets, for example.

"Our country is poor, but there are so many ways to change that," says Ms. Charles, standing in the open-air market in a suburb of Port-au-Prince where her mother sells smoked fish. She often visits her mother there on her way home from the HELP center.

As Ms. Charles spoke, her mother, Raymonde Benôit Charles, beamed. "We all live day to day, and I'm proud that my daughter is studying to help us," the elder Ms. Charles, who earns $5 on a good day, says. These days, with Ms. Charles's 76-year-old father too elderly to work, her mother is the family's sole breadwinner. Meanwhile, vendors, many of whom trek in daily from the countryside, walked by balancing cardboard boxes full of produce on their heads.

HELP's founder, Mr. Bohan, sees the program as a grassroots charity that works best on a small scale "We stumbled upon this idea and got lucky in that people were there to encourage us and help with the funding," he says. But he is curious if the idea will work elsewhere. In December, Mr. Bohan will leave Haiti to go to other developing countries, perhaps starting in Latin America. "Haiti doesn't have a monopoly on misery or merit," he says.
Section: Notes From Academe
Volume 54, Issue 14, Page A36

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