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Help for Haitian Students

January 20, 2010

The tragedy unfolding in Haiti is hitting some colleges hard in the United States.

Institutions in New York City, which has the highest concentration of Haitian residents in the United States, are organizing to provide services to students and their relatives who were affected by last week’s earthquake in Haiti. The City University of New York has about 6,000 students who are either Haitian or of Haitian descent on its 23 campuses. Most of these students are concentrated in Brooklyn and attend CUNY institutions there, such as Medgar Evers College, Brooklyn College, New York City College of Technology and Kingsborough Community College.

Michael Arena, a CUNY spokesman, said that emergency coordinators for each of the system’s institutions were given contact information for all of their Haitian students Tuesday and were instructed to try to account for all of them before the beginning of classes next week. A number of students, he noted, may have traveled to Haiti during the winter break and may be stuck in the country. In addition, he said many of CUNY’s Haitian students, faculty and staff have reported either the loss of relatives or that loved ones are still missing.

“We just wanted to make sure that these institutions have this information at their fingertips -- not just for those students on visas but for all those within the group that might be impacted here -- so that they can reach out to them individually and gauge the level of help or assistance they may need,” said Arena, noting that this information gathering is the first part of a systemwide response to tragedy. There is no preliminary data available as to how many students have been affected by the earthquake either directly or indirectly.

For now, the system is also providing grief and other psychological counseling at all of its campuses. In order to meet the need of all those taking advantage of this service now and once classes begin, Arena said, the system’s traditional counseling staff is being supported by graduate students from CUNY’s clinical psychology program.

At Medgar Evers, where about 700 of its 7,000 students are either Haitian or of Haitian descent, the need for counselors has ballooned so much that the institution has reached out to local clergy to help out as well.

“We’ve participated in relief efforts for the recent tsunami [in Indonesia] and Hurricane Katrina, but this one may have hit a bit closer to home for us because about 10 percent of our students are of Haitian descent,” said Vincent Banrey, vice president for student support services and enrollment management at Medgar Evers. “One of our staff members in health services lost her mother and nephew. Also, one of our counselors told me of one student who had lost seven members of her family and of another that lost three.”

Medgar Evers has also set up support centers on its campus for students seeking assistance in reaching their family members in Haiti. There, they can make long distance calls and have access to computers so that they can try more nontraditional methods of reaching family members via e-mail and social media.

Christopher Hundley, a Medgar Evers spokesman, said the college and other CUNY institutions may eventually help direct students, through the proper channels, to help their relatives seeking temporary protected status in the United States. Also, he noted that the college is working to encourage students affected by the tragedy in Haiti to stay enrolled despite their current difficulties.

“We want to make sure these students continue their education,” Hundley said. “Some have expressed interest in stopping out to work to support their families full time or to be a part of the long-term rebuilding effort back home. Still, we want to make sure they make that choice with the full amount of information. A lot of people feel like they need to immediately jump into this without the proper training and consideration.”

In Miami, which has many communities with a high concentration of Haitian-Americans, colleges are leading similar outreach efforts. Miami Dade College has more than 3,000 Haitian immigrants and thousands more of Haitian descent. These students have been directed to counseling services in the local community.

“This has been very touching since we have a large student body from the place that’s been affected, as was the case in the past when Haiti was struck with the hurricane,” said Malou Harrison, dean of students at Miami Dade. “The Haitian community around here is very close-knit, so when something like this happens in Haiti, it affects us here in South Florida and at our institution. I’ve had colleagues and students just break down around here in recent days. Everywhere you turn on campus, it’s there every single minute. It’s very, very heart wrenching.”

As of Tuesday, the college has no students, faculty or staff members that are missing in Haiti, according to Juan Mendieta, Miami Dade spokesman. The biggest obstacle that remains for the institution is keeping students focused on the spring semester, which is already under way.

“It’s been very difficult for some students to concentrate on their academic studies,” Harrison said. “I know that’s especially hard for those who have lost family members. But we’re encouraging them to stay in school and explaining that, in the long haul, it’s the best route. At this point, we’ve given students more time to determine if they’ll have the finances available to continue. For those that don’t, we’re going to work with them on a case-by-base basis to ensure that their financial concerns are met.”

Since last week, those at the college are already looking for ways to help out. Miami Dade offered a number of Creole-speaking volunteers -- including students, faculty and staff – to help American Red Cross phone banks in the area. In addition, it is also prepared to send faculty and students from its medical center campus to help out the effort on the ground in Haiti if requested.

“Our students are family members to us,” Harrison explained. “When they’re hurt, we’re hurt. We just want to be able to provide them with the moral and emotional support they need right now.”

 

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