January 12, 2013 marked the three year anniversary of the devastating earthquake that destroyed much of the infrastructure of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and exacted a heavy human death and injury toll on the population. The shortcomings of the recovery period and the many problems facing the country will undoubtedly be the dominant themes and focus of most headlines on this anniversary. The analyses that offer constructive insight into the challenges are both necessary and useful, but sometimes it is beneficial to peer beyond those headlines, and acknowledge the success stories from the western half of Hispaniola.
Although all levels of the education system in Haiti are in need of thoughtful and transformative reforms that expand access and improve quality, there are some encouraging developments that deserve recognition. One of those bright spots is the Haitian Education Leadership Program (HELP). HELP's mission is "to create, through merit and needs based scholarships, a community of young professionals and leaders who will promote a more just society in Haiti." The organization provides these scholarships to brilliant students from low-income or disadvantaged backgrounds. The students attend university in Haiti and commit to working on behalf of the country's development after graduation. HELP also provides courses in: English, French, and Leadership, as well as subject specialization courses for university entrance exams. During a trip to Haiti in 2011, I volunteered with HELP. My job was to interview the incoming class of over 30 scholarship recipients and write short biographical profiles for each person.
To say that many of these students had difficult childhoods would be an understatement. Some of them had to begin working at an early age to support their families because their parents worked low-wage jobs that failed to produce an income that covered basic necessities. A few experienced significant adversity without the help of a family -- surviving alone from their early teenage years onward. Most students came from underserved and disadvantaged areas of Haiti. Although each story was different, the two common threads among almost all were: a love of learning, and sincere intellectual curiosity.
How do these young people, many of whom come from serious economic poverty, disadvantaged communities and schools that lack resources, possess such a strong love of learning? Most of them credit their parents with providing the encouragement and early formation needed to sustain a lifelong thirst for knowledge. Regardless of the education levels of the parents, they all understood that providing the the best education possible was one of the few ways to give their children a chance at a better life. They encouraged their children -- sometimes in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds -- to dream big, study tirelessly, practice discipline, read books, and work hard in school if given the opportunity to attend. Many of the students also highlighted the high expectations of mentors and teachers as instrumental to their growth and crucial to their success. Most parents in Haiti have similar aspirations and dreams for their children, but the shortcomings of the education system make the achievements of HELP students far too uncommon in the society at large.
During that 2011 trip I lived in a HELP residence -- one of the four homes the program rented that year to house groups of students throughout the course of their studies. My housemates were studying: agronomy, dentistry, engineering, and medicine. A few were on summer break and the others were in term. It wasn't uncommon for me to hear one of them pacing the hallways and reciting his lesson plan at 2:00 am or 3:00 am on weekdays and weekends. Even those on summer break would prepare for future exams, read supplementary materials, or tutor fellow classmates who were preparing for exams. Each student spoke Haitian Creole and French, and many spoke some English and Spanish as well. Every week, they contributed a small amount of money to buy groceries and they would take turns preparing meals. The students had a clear vision of where they wanted to go in life and possessed remarkable self-determination and discipline. They all had exceedingly high expectations for themselves and their peers.
The stories of many HELP students provide universal lessons in determination and excellence that youth in other countries can apply to their own lives. While we remember the heartbreaking events of January 12, 2010, and enumerate the struggles of the post-earthquake period, let us also take some time to celebrate stories of hope and progress that can inspire us all. The students who matriculate through the HELP program will be the leaders of tomorrow in Haiti. Their inspirational examples give me hope that a brighter future is possible. On my last volunteer day I wrote a letter to the students of HELP expressing those hopes for a more just and mutually prosperous future. An excerpt from that letter is included here:
Dear HELP Students:
During the past two weeks, I have been inspired by the personal stories that many of you have shared with me. Storytelling is revered in Haitian culture, as it is in many cultures. In parts of West Africa, in the lands of our ancestors, griots were the "record keepers" within the oral tradition who mastered the art of storytelling. I heard the rich legacy of that tradition manifest through some of the deep, introspective, and eloquent stories that many of you told me.
Some of you are the first in your families to receive a university education. After you graduate and begin your careers, remember those who taught, nurtured, and guided you. No man or woman is an island and we do not arrive at our destinations or accomplish our goals alone. We have all received help from others along the way. As we achieve success, it is our obligation to assist those in need and provide opportunities for others to make progress.
You will be the leaders of tomorrow in Haiti. Some view leadership as simply telling others what they should do -- dictating a path and pushing people to follow directives. In the 21st century, leadership may be better understood as empowering others. The visionaries among you will have brilliant plans for Haiti and will instruct others on what must be done to bring those plans to fruition. As you plan, manage, and govern, remember the importance of listening and serving. Be aware that academic credentials and status do not place any individual above another. Status or job titles do not make one story more valuable than another. We all belong to the same human family, and our relations with one another should be guided by mutual respect and a recognition of our inherent dignity. Some may walk by a person on the street selling produce and see nothing more than a fruit merchant. The leader will see an entrepreneur with a captivating life story and boundless potential. Some may view the occupations of "Chief Executive Officer" and "Housekeeper" in different lights--assigning more worth and importance to one or the other. A true leader will value both stories and recognize that all people can make vital contributions to the work of a team.
Haiti, like all of us, has a story. While a few chapters have already been written, there are numerous pages waiting to be filled. One day your story will fill those pages. What would you like it to say? As the voices of generations past cry out to you, "Honor!" how will you respond? Let this generation, the post-goudou goudou generation, reply through its words and deeds, with an emphatic, "Respect!"