On Oct. 25 and 26, we took part in an unprecedented convening of higher education leaders in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Led by the University of Massachusetts Boston, representatives from 40 colleges and universities from across the U.S., Canada, Europe, and the Caribbean gathered with representatives from the Haitian Higher Education community, including the minister of education and the chancellor of the University of Haiti, to discuss the establishment of a higher education consortium aimed at advancing the higher education sector in Haiti. The goal of the consortium will be to partner international institutions with Haitian institutions to create synergies, reduce duplication, and expand educational opportunities for Haitians in Haiti. One desired outcome will be to reduce the “brain drain” of highly educated and skilled professionals who are leaving Haiti at alarming rates.
Like the conditions in Haiti, the conversation was at times painfully difficult, as participants addressed issues of control, process and establishing a shared vision. At the end of two days, there was optimism and high expectations that this consortium will be established and will be successful. Follow-up steps have already been taken which will provide the foundation and path to the formal establishment of the consortium.
Driving through the streets of Port-au-Prince and surrounding environs, we were shocked and disturbed by the devastation and apparent lack of progress since the massive earthquake of Jan. 12, 2010. Despite the resources that have been leveraged through countless international organizations, nearly toppled buildings stand throughout the country surrounded by rubble and temporary fencing. Tens of thousands of tents packed into virtually any space serve as home to hundreds of thousands of people forced to use temporary port-a-pots with little facilities for showers and other basic hygiene. The pace of progress must be accelerated, and the time is now.
Through it all, we were moved by the wonder and beauty of the country, its people, and its tenacity to overcome—a history of struggle, persistence and survival. We were in awe of the entrepreneurial spirit of the people who found ways to sell their goods, food and wares–everywhere. We were inspired by the individual acts of rebuilding seen on side streets and on a major throughway. We smiled at the older gentleman with his shoeshine stand on a small mound of rubble. We were touched by the grandmother who sat watching young children with a stern but loving eye for their safety. We were impressed by Université Notre Dame d’Haiti President Monsignor Pierre-Andre Pierre’s love of his students and his unwavering commitment to providing education opportunities for students of all ages and economic circumstances. Noteworthy is his dedication to establishing a School of Education at the Université Notre Dame d’Haiti.
We were inspired and moved by the children and those who care for them. In Port-au-Prince, we visited the pediatric wards of the devastated public hospital, the only public hospital left serving the entirety of Port-au-Prince. Dr. Jessy Colimon Adrien, chief of Pediatrics, walked us through the hospital’s very meager general ward, emergency ward, neonatal and intensive care units and the area reserved for malnourished patients. We were angered by the lack of basic equipment, medicines, and simple amenities. And we asked, “Why?”
We listened as Dr. Colimon calmly cited the horrific facts with which she and her colleagues are confronted daily: birth rates that have risen from 4:1,000 to 12:1,000 since the earthquake; only one nurse for 15 babies in the intensive care unit (the standard is three per 15); the disturbing fact that 75% of all babies born in Port-au-Prince are now delivered at home and a multifold increase in reported rape cases. When asked what she most needed for her patients, she quietly asked for clean water, vaccines and sanitary conditions for the children of Port-au-Prince—a humble and reasonable request that should be a given, not an aspiration.
In Jacmel, a seaside town about three hours south of Port-au-Prince, we spent time at Fondation S.O.S. Enfants D’Haiti, a school run through the dedication of Maggie Coutard and adopted by Massachusetts Bay Community College. While the government of Haiti mandates compulsory education for all students, there are not enough resources to deliver on this mandate and as a result, most students do not receive a public education. Most students who are lucky enough to attend a school go to privately funded schools paid for by their parents and subsidized by nonprofit and for-profit organizations. Nearly 600 elementary and middle school students attend the Fondation S.O.S. Enfants D’Haiti in three shifts of about three hours each. Rocked by the earthquake, most of the classrooms operate in semi-permanent tents with adjustable plastic panels that can be lowered during the rainy season.
The teachers struggle to provide rudimentary materials necessary to teach. As we watched the eager and willing students, dressed in their clean bright yellow uniforms, ready to learn, we wondered how they will spend the remaining six hours of their day with no out-of school programs to enhance and expand their academic skills. We were inspired and motivated by the commitment of the school leaders and teachers to children of Jacmel, and at the same time, we know painstakingly well that these children will not be competitive in a fast-paced 21st century global economy, unless a priority is made, very quickly, to invest in education for the children of Haiti.
Amidst the devastation in Jacmel, we found a makeshift art gallery and school for young artists. Here, with very little, experienced artisans from the town cleaned up a building and are providing art classes for the youth of Jacmel using materials found in the earthquake debris. Once again, we were moved by the can-do spirit of the Haitians. We applaud their efforts to preserve their rich culture through art and the sharing of art through the children.
We left Haiti with many ideas of how ours and other like-minded institutions can join with the people of Haiti to rebuild this most magnificent and beautiful country. There are opportunities for our students to provide service, for our faculty to provide support and scholarship, for our alumni to contribute time and resources, and for our civic and business communities to help provide basic provisions for health and education facilities.
Dr. Joycelyn Elders, former U.S. Surgeon General once wrote “You can’t educate a child who isn’t healthy and you can’t keep a child healthy who isn’t educated.” Haiti’s future lies in its children, most of whom we saw forgotten by the outside world as they long for basic education and healthcare. Despite the challenges inherent in collaborations, consortia-building and the like, the pressing needs of the people of Haiti require that we overcome these obstacles. The conditions that remain in Haiti, now almost 10 months since the earthquake, require action. Both Wheelock and Massachusetts Bay Community Colleges are ready to make a difference in the lives of the children of Haiti, as we partner with schools, universities and other institutions in Haiti.
Won’t you join us as we work together to build a better future for the children of Haiti, who need us now more than ever?
Carole Berotte Joseph, president of Massachusetts Bay Community College, is the first Haitian-American to lead a U.S. institution of higher education. Jackie Jenkins-Scott is the first African-American president of Wheelock College in Boston.