No campus necessary: online provider offers hope to Haiti

As the country struggles with problems caused by the quake, distance learning stirs optimism for some young people. Sarah Cunnane reports

December 9, 2010

The earthquake that devastated Haiti in January destroyed homes, lives and businesses.

It also ravaged the country's higher education system: of Haiti's 32 major universities, 28 were levelled and the remaining four were severely damaged.

As a result, many academics and students left the country, contributing to a brain drain that many fear will cripple Haiti further still.

However, efforts are being made to restore access to education.

The California-based University of the People is providing access to online degrees in computer science and business administration.

It lacks degree-awarding powers, but as it has applied for licensing it may enrol students on degree-level courses. It is setting up a number of computer centres in Port-au-Prince to give students access to its courses. Already it has enrolled 16 students, with plans to increase the number to 250 over time.

Students participating in the project told Times Higher Education that higher education was essential to getting the nation on the road to recovery.

"Education is the best way to get Haiti out of the situation it finds itself in," said Frederson Joseph, who is studying business administration.

"I've wanted to do this for years, but I didn't have anyone who believed in my potential and the potential of Haiti's young people. This chance is something that is not only helping me but also helping my society. It will change me, it will change my future."

Another student, Sadrac Saint-Victor, described how he used to work as a gardener "trying to grow things like leeks and onions" to support his family.

"Today I can say I am a student. I am very thankful for this opportunity," he said.

Kesta Joseph was originally from the city of Cap-Haitien but moved away from her family to Port-au-Prince to study.

She recalled the travails that followed the earthquake. "Where I was living got destroyed; we couldn't sleep inside, we had to sleep in the street. It wasn't easy for us, it was a terrible event. But by the grace of God, we are still alive, and life goes on."

Ready to rebuild

All three students intend to stay in Haiti and help rebuild it.

"I want to get a better job here in my country and help all other students get this chance," Mr Joseph said. "It's very important to me to help others, especially as many Haitians cannot afford to go to university."

Ms Joseph agreed: "Education is the best thing we could have. I'm going to help myself first, and then I can help others, save money and run a business."

For now, more pressing concerns about the provision of food and water and prevention of disease may hold the attention of those in power.

However, Mr Joseph said he hoped that the short-term problems would not obscure the need to look at what needs to be done longer term.

"I would like the opportunity to speak to the politicians," he said. "I want to try to get them to put an emphasis on higher education."

sarah.cunnane@tsleducation.com.

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