How We Can Help Haiti

Tracy Fitzsimmons considers what colleges are well positioned to do, what they may not be able to do, and why a long-term perspective is needed.

January 15, 2010

I always thought that Port-au-Prince could not get any uglier. But it has, and it happened in under a minute. Haiti's capital was full of grey cement-block houses, dusty streets with potholes that could swallow a car, gridlock of epic proportions, and buildings that looked like they could collapse at any moment. And two days ago, most of the buildings did. Even the whitewashed presidential palace, nearly the only building in Port-au-Prince that was sparkling and clean, is now largely a pancake of white cement and stone.

But my reaction to the Haitians has always been exactly the opposite. They are, as a whole, a beautiful people. Yes, certainly they are physically striking. In fact, on many a tap-tap ride (Haiti's colorful but crude version of public transportation in the back of a modified pick-up truck), I found myself surrounded by men and women who would have been tough competition for any runway model at the highest level. But really, what I mean is that they are a beautifully resilient, warm-hearted and innovative people.

In my house, the Haitian earthquake is intensely personal. Over the past 15 years, my husband and I have worked on and in Haiti. His scholarship was on the Haitian National Police (PNH) and on peacebuilding, and he did consulting work with the United Nations and other agencies. I researched civil society issues and the integration of women into the PNH, and led January-term study trips to Haiti. And along the way, like so many other American academics, we made dear friends in Haiti, decorated our house and offices with Haitian art, and tried through our writing to contribute productively to Haiti's political development.

We, like so many others, continue to await news about our friends and colleagues in Port-au-Prince. Many Americans' image of Haiti is one of an AIDS-stricken, impoverished and corrupt nation. This crisis provides an opportunity to broaden such perceptions. Haiti offers rich culture, world-class art and music, and enviable beaches. Many of us who study Haiti are compelled by the political and economic development challenges it faces, and the myriad of cultural traditions that flourish even as political order is evasive.

Now, every bone in my body wants to be in Haiti right now doing something -- anything -- to help. But, no, this is not appropriate or helpful. Not now. What can I, what can any higher education administrator, do to help Haiti right now?

First, educate. Our primary mission as educational institutions must remain as our central focus. While we continue to support all academic programs, this is a crucial time for us to educate our students and local communities about Haiti. Take this opportunity, with all eyes focused on Haiti, to create opportunities for students to learn about Haitian history, politics and culture. As well, create an open dialogue for reflecting on this disaster -- encourage compassion and legitimate initial, emotional responses to the crisis.

But then ask faculty experts to lead the campus in a more analytical reflection of the challenges of disaster-relief, international aid, and peacebuilding. This is the time for us to open the door for students to consider a long-term commitment, or a career, related to humanitarian work. As well, university leaders should proactively connect faculty experts to the local and national media. All too often, we mistakenly assume that all media outlets recognize the expertise we have on our campuses. Ask your communications director to notify local media of faculty members who are Caribbean or Haitian experts -- or, for that matter, who are experts in reconstruction, peacebuilding, rule of law, structural engineering, etc. The opportunities for education around this Haitian earthquake and its impact are endless.

Second, identify and support your students, faculty and staff who are Haitian or Haitian-American. So many American colleges and universities have a multicultural or international population -- identify those most closely impacted by this Haitian crisis and act swiftly. Offers of spiritual, psychological, financial and academic support may all be appropriate. Here at Shenandoah University, we have two students from Port-au-Prince who now, some 36 hours after the earthquake, have still not heard from their families. We have temporarily suspended their tuition payments, provided emergency funding for living expenses, worked with Sodexho to provide free meal contracts, introduced them to those best able to provide counseling support, and are using all our contacts to help them locate their parents. Their faculty members are reaching out to them by being flexible with class requirements and making offers of individual help. So many of our institutions talk about being a "campus family" -- this is the time that institutions demonstrate that by their actions.

Third, use every available resource to locate your students studying abroad in Haiti. Maintain regular contact with the U.S. Embassy, your other partners in Haiti, and with the students' parents until their safety or whereabouts can be assured. Make plans to return them to the United States as soon as possible or facilitate their transition to participate in the disaster relief. Do not allow students to linger in Haiti without a plan and without proper support, contacts and mentorship. This could be the best learning experience of their lifetime, or it could be so traumatic that they will forever shy away from international travel or work.

Fourth, use your role as a university and community leader to encourage financial support for Haitian disaster relief and rebuilding. Here in Winchester, Va., I was scheduled to give a talk to the local Kiwanis Club 18 hours after the earthquake. Six months ago, they had asked me to come talk with them this week about the university's expansion plans. Instead I talked for 5 minutes about the university and then another 15 minutes about Haiti, followed by 10 minutes of open discussion. With so many buildings in rubble in Haiti, it seemed inappropriate to talk about my university's building plans and to ask for their financial support of our new residence hall. Instead, I asked them as community leaders to donate, immediately, to one of the many Haitian crisis groups. I can always ask for their financial support of the university next time I see them.

Fifth, unless you have departments or faculty members who are experts in doing search and rescue, or treating trauma victims, your institution should consider not being involved in this first wave of disaster response. But begin now to plan for your institution's role in the second and third waves of disaster response and rebuilding. Here at Shenandoah, that means that we are already beginning to collect medical and hygiene supplies for future transport to Haiti. And we are already planning for spring break and summer mission trips, and perhaps even an entire fall term, to Haiti to participate in the cleanup, rebuilding, and long term healthcare needed for Haiti. So many institutions have participated in the post-Katrina cleanup and are well-placed to have some level of understanding and expertise in post-disaster situations. Such institutions really should begin planning to send mission groups to Haiti in the future.

But three notes of caution: Only send an aid or mission team if your connections in Haiti are strong or you can identify a "receiving organization" in Haiti to best use the talents of your group. Be aware that the cultural and structural organization of Haiti, or at least what is left of it, is unlike any in the Western hemisphere and therefore many of our assumptions about needs and processes may not be useful or applicable. Also, as university administrators, we must continually assess the security concerns in Haiti as we consider sending student groups. Haiti has long been on the brink of lawlessness, and this disaster could send it over that edge.

Sixth, if you are really interested in helping Haiti, identify a partner that is a good fit for your institution instead of trying to go it alone. Finding an agency or organization that aligns well with your institutional mission with help ensure the best experience for those involved and the most productive use of your students' time.

Finally, if you are moved by Haiti's plight, resolve to maintain some level of campus and personal focus. As college and university administrators, we are guilty of frequently jumping from topic to topic. When Haiti is no longer on the front page of every newspaper and web portal, will we be onto the next issue? Because Haiti needs our support this week, and for years to come.

Most college and university mission statements now include a reference to international awareness, global citizenship, an ethic of compassion and care, etc. This is an opportunity -- perhaps the opportunity -- for university administrators and institutions as a whole, to model our mission statements in a way that could make a world of difference.


Tracy Fitzsimmons is president of Shenandoah University.


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