Our Role in Haiti

Tracy Fitzsimmons offers advice for colleges in the United States that want to help -- and are willing to make a long-term commitment.

March 18, 2010

As I write, I am sitting on the floor of the Port-au-Prince airport – the only part of the airport that has re-opened since the earthquake that destroyed much of the city. After spending the past week in Haiti, “destroyed” has taken on new proportions in my mind.

When news of the earthquake first started to come across the wires on January 12, it was easy for me to imagine the places they mentioned, as I have long done research and traveled in Haiti. I was one of millions who anxiously scanned the Web and news channels, and grieved for Haiti. My shock at the level of destruction was so emotional, so severe, that I was convinced that the news media had done a good job of preparing me for the extent of the devastation.

I couldn’t have been more wrong.

I had not anticipated – two months after the quake – driving through a city center and at each intersection picking one’s route based solely on which road was passable. To see flattened houses and devastated hillsides over and over again. To not be able to avert your eyes from the damage because it is everywhere. Looking closely, one can see that each pile of rubble contains an intimate story of former lives – each pile is a mix of concrete blocks peppered with a shoe, an identity card, a broken chair, a comb.

As a political scientist, it was painful for me to witness the complete destruction of most of the buildings central to governance and democracy. The National Palace, the Palace of Justice, nearly every ministry building and some police stations in ruins. And many buildings that housed non-governmental organizations and community-service centers were also severely damaged or destroyed, killing those inside who were working to build a stronger civil society. And now virtually all the parks and sidewalks are covered with tents and tarp dwellings.

How can Haiti hold on to the already fragile strings of democracy without all of those public spaces? Which to re-build first? Can Haitian civil society and its struggling democracy really weather such a blow? The questions and challenges are baffling.

But from the perspective of a university president, the questions and issues are even more disturbing. The schools are destroyed. In nearly every neighborhood, in every part of the city, there are collapsed schools. Schools lean precariously. Chalkboards, desks and books are strewn among the rubble. And thousands of teachers and administrators, not to mention students, are now dead.

An estimated 4,200 schools collapsed or were damaged beyond repair in the earthquake. Many, many others were less severely damaged but cannot reopen without significant renovation. Schools throughout Port-au-Prince have been closed for these past two months as thousands upon thousands of former students have fled temporarily to the provinces, or are sleeping in tent cities or on the street. The Ministry of Education has set a goal for schools to reopen in early April, a date that many are already admitting may be too early.

So many of us in higher education across the world are asking ourselves how we can be supportive of the rebuilding of Haitian universities. But I want to suggest that we should focus first on the rebuilding of the primary and secondary schools, instead of the colleges and universities.

Quite simply, without rebuilding the pipeline, there will be no students ready to populate the Haitian universities. The K-12 schools in and around Port-au-Prince are really at a critical moment. If the rebuilding does not start soon, an entire generation of schoolchildren may lose the opportunity or motivation to get an education. The Haitian government – with so few financial resources and its infrastructure in ruins – cannot do the rebuilding alone.

Two months ago, I wrote an article for Inside Higher Ed suggesting that universities and colleges should respond to the earthquake in Haiti with passion – but also with restraint. On campuses across the United States, the initial reaction of many students and faculty members was to jump on a plane to Haiti and help immediately. Dig. Treat patients. Set up tent camps and food stations. That was my gut reaction too.

But I knew that, like the vast majority of colleges and universities, my institution was not prepared to send a trauma-response team. Unless institutions have faculty and students trained in trauma or emergency relief, they run the unacceptable risk of being more of a burden then a help. Instead, we were best placed to focus on our central mission of education – to educate our students and community on the challenges and trajectory of Haiti, and to encourage people to give of their resources.

As well, I argued that universities should wait to send response teams until the second and third waves of emergency relief.

Well, the time has come. I just led Shenandoah University’s first post-earthquake trip to Haiti. For the most part, it was an assessment trip, aimed at identifying how we will be involved in the coming years. We also accompanied two of our Haitian students, a brother and sister, back to their country for a reunion with their family.

Below, I offer some guidelines for universities and colleges as they begin to become more involved, on the ground, in Haiti or in other post-disaster areas.

Go with a plan – and a focused one. No university or college is large enough to diffuse its efforts and still make any real impact. Choose one or two specific projects that reflect your institution’s strengths and mission.

For Shenandoah University, that means we have committed to help the College Catherine Flon in Carrefour, Haiti rebuild again. Catherine Flon, a K-12 school, serves a largely low-income population and has a reputation for graduating students who become police officers, teachers, and mid-level government workers. Most immediately, we are helping them secure tents and supplies with which to start up temporarily while the rubble of their buildings is cleared. Given our strength in health professions, it also means that we will begin to send faculty and advanced students on two week or month long trips to support the work of the Albert Schweitzer Hospital and its field clinics.

Our assessment team this past week included two engineers, one an international expert in seismic-resistant concrete buildings, who were able to advise the school and the government on which of the Catherine Flon’s buildings to demolish and which could be saved. A physician assistant faculty member and a psychiatrist who were able to assess medical needs were also on hand to see how Shenandoah could be most helpful.

Go with strong connections. Haiti is a very welcoming country, but it does not have an easy culture or language to understand initially. Be sure to partner with a local or international non-governmental organization or with a specific church or school. Make sure the U.S. Embassy knows that your group is in Haiti.

For Shenandoah, the school connection was easy because we partnered with the K-12 school, College Catherine Flon, at which our students’ father was the principal. The school buildings had sustained significant collapse and damage, and it served a high-need population. For the health professions connections, we talked with several faculty and friends of the university until we found someone – a trustee – who had a strong and appropriate connection in Haiti. Shenandoah was fortunate to have such an easy link to a school in need in Haiti. Unfortunately, there is no nonprofit that is organizing international connections for schools In Haiti right now. The best way to connect would be through the Haitian Ministry of Education, laying out your specific criteria, or through a church in your community that may have a sister-relationship in Haiti. As well, colleges and universities are welcome to join Shenandoah's efforts to re-build the College Catherine Flon. As well, our Shenandoah team may be able to help connect you with another school.

Go as self-sufficient as possible. Relief teams or mission groups need to provide a great experience for the students and faculty involved without being a burden on the host institution or organization for meals, housing or language interpretation. Plan for things to be very difficult, and be surprised if it is easier.

Nowhere is this truer than in Haiti right now. What few resources that exist in Haiti are already being overtaxed. Our Shenandoah team took along its own tents, food, and interpreters. The tents (we passed them to Haitians upon our departure) and interpreters were invaluable. We were pleasantly surprised that, despite hundreds of thousands still being fed daily through food distribution lines, food for purchase is now somewhat readily available. Some basic language and cultural preparation beforehand are particularly important.

Go in a spirit of partnership or as a supporting actor. No one knows better what Haiti needs than the Haitians. They have no need for patronage or culturally inappropriate advice. As you partner with an organization or school, listen to what they say they need and determine if there is a way for your institution to be supportive. This is the time to empower Haiti, which means working alongside Haitians and letting them take the lead.

For the Shenandoah team, much of this past week in Haiti was about listening to the dreams and needs of the director, faculty and students of the College Catherine Flon, and trying to understand its role in the community surrounding it. As one man explained to me, “Everyone here in Carrefour is watching what happens with Catherine Flon. If it rebuilds and opens again, then it will give the rest of us hope. If they rebuild, then so will many others.” This school has earned a leadership position in the community because of its good work. They don’t need Shenandoah to tell them what to do, but they do need assistance in achieving those goals in this challenging post-earthquake environment.

Make a long-term commitment. Haiti needs partners who will be present not just in this second wave of relief, but for years to come. In order to be useful and not a burden, Haitian schools and organizations need partners that will provide consistency and tangible help. Furthermore, establishing a long-term commitment to Haiti means that more of your faculty, staff, students and trustees will make a commitment to learn about and participate in the rebuilding of Haiti. Such awareness and interest are the first steps toward educating our students to be better global citizens.

Shenandoah has committed to being involved with the College Catherine Flon for the long term. We intend to support their plans to rebuild the physical infrastructure of their campus and to become a center for community development. We will do that through fundraising for the construction to replace the collapsed buildings, through sending work teams of faculty and students, to work alongside the Catherine Flon students and staff, and through welcoming other schools or organizations to participate in this initiative.

The partnership to rebuild the College Catherine Flon is an example of a specific project that a university or college can do to be of assistance in post-earthquake Haiti. The quote of the day on one of the school’s chalkboards, untouched since January 12th, is a reminder of why such a focused project can have importance for a whole community/society: “Tant vaut l’école, tant vaut la nation” (as the schools go, so goes the nation).

Our efforts will likely not change the world, nor have a major impact on Haiti. But they transform the world view of my students, and may make a tangible difference in the lives of the 5,000 students who attend that K-12 school and in the community of Carrefour. For me, as a university president, that’s an investment well worth making.


Tracy Fitzsimmons is president of Shenandoah University. You may follow the journey of the university's Haiti team on Facebook. Those wishing
to participate in the re-building of the College Catherine Flon may send checks to Shenandoah University-Haiti school, 1460 University Avenue, Winchester, VA 22649.


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