L’Institut des Sciences et Technologies et Études Avancées d’Haïti first graduation ceremony, September 23, 2017
L’Institut des Sciences et Technologies et Études Avancées d’Haïti first graduation ceremony, September 23, 2017

by Reynald Altema, M.D.

Haiti is going through a demographic explosion with the added curse of steady and constant brain drain dwindling the cadre of professionals. The statistics are glaring. According to Samuel Pierre, Ph.D., professor at l’École Polytechnique de Montréal and GRAHN-Monde President, “Whereas Quebec with a population of 8.5 million has 10,000 college professors, Haiti with a population of 10 million only has 1,000!” Compounding the miasma is the fact that there are no graduate schools in Haiti, with the exception of  medical and dental fields.

This scarcity only exacerbates the litany of problems already present. True to its motto of addressing problems and finding workable and innovative solutions, Groupe de Réflexion et d’Action pour une Haïti Nouvelle, or GRAHN, decided to tackle the problem head-on in 2013 with the underlying impulse to counter the over-dependence on foreign aid. Again, quoting Dr. Pierre, “Haiti lives on international aid… and doesn’t create wealth…” The idea is to emulate the success story of other societies and help establish “a critical mass of scientists and engineers to help [Haiti’s] infrastructure and foster economic growth.”

Easier said than done. Nonetheless, leveraging professional contacts established over the years and a “can-do” spirit can comfort us in believing that the success story of Taiwan and Singapore can be replicated in our homeland, but only if we put our minds to it. It is an open secret: the dogged pursuit of excellence in education and a high concentration of universities holds the key to a sustainable and bright future for Haiti. Therefore, taking advantage of the advances of information technology, a system of mixing high-speed online video conferences was established to help disseminate information throughout a network of campuses in six different cities.

Enter ISTEAH, otherwise in French known as L’Institut des Sciences et Technologies et Études Avancées d’Haïti. It offers a practical solution of decentralization and affords distance learning and teaching. The bulk of the faculty teaches from remote locations like Canada, the U.S., and France. There are local professors, too. Real-time information helps blur the distinction of place of origination of the conference.

Whether a lecture originates from Paris by a volunteer or Cap-Haïtien by a local or visiting professor, it is transmitted to everyone in attendance in real time. Although the model operates on a shoestring budget and relies on a large voluntary faculty of university professors from foreign schools, either retired or still working, ISTEAH makes the jump from theory to concrete enactment. Its vision, according to James Féthière, Ph.D., vice president of research and innovation, is to “put science and technology at the service of the development of the country by training high-level scientists, innovators, and leaders who will be fully aware of their social responsibilities.” And its goal, he goes further, “is to create 1,000 Haitian scientists locally over a period of 10 years.”

ISTEAH believes it has found a unique model. It is concentrating on a student population made up of teachers and government employees, making up 90% of enrollees. This way, it’s improving the quality of local teachers and it’s enhancing the competency of the civil service employees who professionally administer the proper functionality of the state.

This model offers many advantages, not the least is a low yearly tuition of $3,500. Master’s and doctorate degrees are conferred in nine different programs:

  1. agriculture/food/environmental sciences
  2. business administration
  3. economics
  4. educational sciences
  5. engineering
  6. management sciences
  7. project management
  8. vocational and technical training
  9. management of local collectivities

Other innovative parts include partnerships with other schools with dual degrees. The list of partners includes Dartmouth College, École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, École Polytechnique de Montréal, ENS de Lyon, INSA de Lyon, Télé-Université de Québec, Université de Strasbourg, UQAM, UQTR, Coastal Zones Research Institute, Fédération Québécoise de Professeurs et Professeures d’Université, and INS/HEA.

The gauntlet as we see it is evident. As ISTEAH Professor Charles Tardieu reminds us, only 8,000 seats are available on a yearly basis for all the institutions of higher learning  (Haïti-Perspectives, 2017). The total enrollment of our nationals studying across the border on the same island in the Dominican Republic is 65,000 for an estimated total tuition cost of $350 million. Imagine the economic benefits if only we could provide half as many seats. The pent-up demand is certainly obvious.  

Currently, the enrollment is about 330 students with a faculty of 200 from all over the world, giving first-rate lectures to our brethren back home. This is indeed an innovative approach, cost effective, and a cutting-edge effort. The prospect for the future looks bright. ISTEAH is embarking on building a large campus on the PIGRAN site in La Cité du Savoir et Génipailler, a rural section of Milot, as well as a building in Port-au-Prince later this year.

This particular choice for the main campus holds historical significance as it will be a stone’s throw away from the Citadelle Laferrière, a monumental edifice erected by newly liberated slaves in the early 1800s. Establishing a college town in the area would be our generation’s effort to take the gauntlet and carry it forth. This effort is a collective one and anybody who cares about the welfare of the country is welcome to participate.

As an appropriate segue, let’s recount the following message from Dr. Féthière to eternal doubters: “Watch us if you choose to, and be amazed… or join us and contribute to make an impactful difference.”

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