My Identity as Haitian-American Is an Asset, Not a Deficit

A college president's perspective.

January 23, 2018

Anderson Cooper’s emotional and heartfelt comments about Haiti recently was a special kind of validation. I watched that clip of him speaking about the characteristics of the Haitians he has met throughout the course of his life many times and made my children watch it as well, so that no matter what they heard on television about their heritage, they would know that not everyone wishes to belittle them.

Our family is uniquely American with heritage from Haiti, Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Ukraine. I am a proud naturalized Haitian-American. My husband is a second generation American of Jewish, Catholic, and Unitarian Universalist faiths. I was raised Baptist. There are few countries outside of the United States where one finds this kind of mix. Our children are proud of their mixed identities and especially of their Haitian and Jewish heritage, coming from a long line of ancestors who have overcome a lot and know how to survive and surmount great difficulties to succeed in new lands. When the going gets tough, we get strength from those aspects of who we are.

I am the President of Cumberland County College, a community college in one of the poorest counties in New Jersey. Our county is rural, diverse, home to many businesses serving local, national, and international clients across multiple continents. Our county relies on migrant labor to work on the farms and in processing plants that give us our agricultural and horticultural identity, and partly sustain our local economy. We are home to many food and other manufacturing companies also. One of the things that I love most about Cumberland County is our strong sense of cultural heritage, be it Italian, Ukrainian, Puerto Rican, Mexican, Jewish, African-American, Native American, or Japanese, among others. As a Haitian-American, I feel a strong sense of belonging in Cumberland, partly because I have met so many people who share their stories of how their parents and grandparents arrived in the United States of America as immigrants with the dream of working hard so that the next generation could have a brighter future than the one they escaped in their birth country.

As president of our local community college, my identity helps me to lead with not just the head and spine, but with the heart and with values deeply rooted in democracy, equity, justice, and with a strong work ethic. My identity as a Haitian-American woman who came to the United States not speaking a word of English, yet speaks four languages today, is an asset, not a deficit. I identify with the people of our county and with our students, with their grit, their perseverance and determination because I can not only relate first-hand to them, but because I have lived worse. Most importantly, I relate to their drive to succeed. Cumberland County’s leaders across industries, the political spectrum, and our nonprofits are working assiduously to improve our socio-economic standing and outcomes, and that energy is both electric and contagious.

To extend opportunities for education, for self-sufficiency in a county with five prisons and jails, for the means to achieve the dignity of work to provide for one’s family, is to advance democracy. This is what I do every day as a Haitian-American, and I do it in collaboration with other Americans of various heritage. Our diversity is our strength.

I am grateful for my birth country and grateful for my adopted country.

Yves Salomon-Fernandez is President of Cumberland County College located in beautiful Vineland, New Jersey. The College is a designated Hispanic Serving Institution (HSI) and an Achieving the Dream (AtD) Leader College. Follow her @PrezYves



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