LAZILE, Haiti(IPS) – When Garry Delice arrives at St. Joseph, a public high school in rural Haiti, something’s amiss. The cinderblock building is full of students, but no teacher can be found. Young men and women are finishing exams, and the staff has already left for the day.
But Delice and his delegation have driven four hours from Port-au-Prince – over rough roads, through rivers, and up a mountain – to get here, and they won’t be deterred. Delice asks some students to gather their friends. He has an announcement to make.
A few dozen youths seat themselves on wood benches and lock their focus on the visitors.
Delice begins. “Has anyone heard of university?”
There’s some mumbling.
“What is a university?” he asks.
A hand goes up. “It’s where people go after school.”
In fact, only 1 percent of Haitians ever makes it to university. In remote regions like this, the figure is still lower, as are the odds of escaping poverty. Even for those graduating high school at the top of their class, the cost of continuing their education is usually prohibitive.
Delice tells the students he’s trying to change this. He’s the national director of the Haitian Education and Leadership Programme (HELP), a scholarship fund that covers lodging, tuition and other expenses for high achieving students. He and two HELP scholars are on a three-day tour to spread word of their programme.
Every spring, HELP representatives visit about 150 secondary schools across the country. They have a lot of explaining to do. University scholarships are virtually unheard of in Haiti. Most of the 12 school directors Delice speaks with on this tour say they’ve never heard of any such programme.
From impoverished schools in Haiti’s slums and heartland, Delice seeks to extract what he hopes will be part of a burgeoning middle class, to fill a void between rich and poor. HELP takes students from both private and public schools, but Delice goes the extra mile – or 20 – to reach places like St. Joseph.
A product of Haitian public school himself, Delice’s experience teaching history at one left him awed by students’ ability to excel in spite of everything.
“We knew their parents didn’t have enough money to feed them every day,” he says. “They didn’t have anything, but when they took the [national, standardised] baccalaureate test, they easily passed.”
HELP seeks applicants who exhibit merit and need – that is, a five-year grade point average of 4.0 and severe financial constraints. Still, of applicants meeting these standards, fewer than 15 percent are accepted. Last year, HELP took 35 of 250 applicants. They were judged on academic performance, baccalaureate scores, interviews, and an essay identifying a problem in their community and how it can be solved without external funds.
Marie-Michele Montout, one of the HELP scholars on the recruiting trip, wrote her application essay about challenges in her district’s education system. Suzie Pascal, the other scholar in the delegation, is an engineering student at Haiti’s state university. Her dream is to start a recycling company, converting trash into energy.
On a recent visit to Port-au-Prince, former U.S. president Bill Clinton visited the HELP office and spoke with recipients. He was wowed by the number of students like Pascal who want to protect the environment, and by another phenomenon: While Haiti suffers from a typical third world brain drain, with some 84 percent of university graduates leaving for opportunities overseas, the opposite exists among HELP graduates. Almost all of the 40 HELP recipients who’ve graduated since the programme began 12 years ago have stayed in Haiti.
One reason for this is HELP’s philosophy. Graduate Marie Goretti Poulard puts it this way: “I know that the main mission of HELP is to provide merit scholarships in order that in the future we will be able to change things… I think that when foreigners contributed to my scholarship, it wasn’t so that I could move to their country. It was so that I could stay and help my country.”
Poulard is now on staff as HELP’s recruiting coordinator.
The organisation’s founder, a U.S. national named Conor Bohan, who came to Haiti to teach at a free private boarding school, believes Haitians, like anyone, should travel – but to broaden their horizons, not to escape the problems of their country. Bohan thinks that HELP scholars’ roots might make them less inclined to abandon their homeland.
Highly educated Haitians tend to be from wealthier families with ties overseas and expectations of leaving. By contrast, most HELP students come from the peasantry or urban underclass, wind up earning more in Haiti than they’d ever imagined, and often want to help others as they’ve been helped.
The need for more professionals in Haiti is evident everywhere. On the way back to their hotel from Lazile, the HELP delegation is detained at a river crossing for an hour. A bus is stuck in the mud, and no vehicle can pass. Without road or bridge construction, traversing these routes is a game of chance, and one breakdown can bring all commerce to a halt.
On the last day of the expedition, the crew heads back to Port-au-Prince in the morning because Montout has a 1 o’clock exam. But down the road, plumes of black smoke signal trouble ahead.
Demonstrators, angered by the firing of a local judge, have blocked the way with piles of gravel and dozens of burning tires. After two hours, Delice finds a rough detour road through crop fields and reaches the other side.
Montout will miss her exam, but she seems unbothered, gazing out the window, headphones on, and rapping along to her favorite Haitian hip hop group, appropriately named Barikad.
Like anyone who’s grown up in Haiti, Montout is used to all kinds of barricades, but she’s also one of a minority with the brains, drive and, thanks to HELP, financial means to succeed in spite of everything. She’ll take the exam another day – and likely get a top score.