UMass doctoral candidate helps out Haiti

By Amy Brennan

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Although the world seems to be accustomed to natural disasters due to their abundant recent occurrences, the disaster in Haiti last January created uproar around the entire globe.

The 7.0 magnitude earthquake, according to USA Today, killed an estimated 230,000 people, sending the impoverished country into chaos. People became desperate, shooting others for food and vying for placement in portable hospitals beleaguered by contagious diseases such as measles, tetanus and diphtheria. Numerous people who survived the earthquake died waiting for medical treatment.

Misfortune and heartbreak, however, are nothing new to most Haitians. The educational system is ailing in an abundance of ways. According to, 50 percent of primary school-aged children are not enrolled in school. Thirty percent will not make it to third grade, and 60 percent will not make it to sixth grade. Thirty-seven percent of the population cannot read or write, and 70 percent are unemployed, according to the same statistics

These figures were not acceptable to Marky Jean-Pierre, a doctoral candidate in education at University of Massachusetts.

Jean-Pierre grew up in Haiti and came to the United States in 1998. Since then, he has been going to school full-time while working to support his family both in the U.S. and in Haiti.

When Jean-Pierre finished tenth grade, he could not continue his education because his parents were not able to afford a private school. He began teaching elementary classes in the mornings and taking classes in the evenings to complete his secondary education.

After his secondary education, he participated in a selective contest to have a place at the State University of Haiti. Jean-Pierre became one of the one percent of Haitian students who had access to higher education.

Before coming to the U.S., he completed his degree in psychology. He then attended UMass Boston in 2001, where he completed his bachelor’s degree. From 2003 to 2005, he received his MA in applied linguistics at UMass Boston and then began his doctoral degree in education in 2005 at UMass Amherst. He defended his doctoral dissertation last December.

Jean-Pierre became involved in Haiti’s education system following his developing interest in how education intersects with geopolitical and social expansion in the modern world.

“I have been curious of the discourse in the media through which Haiti is most of the time portrayed for negative aspects of our dignity as human beings,” said Jean-Pierre.

Jean-Pierre cited chronic political turmoil, substandard housing, hunger, lack of healthcare, a high rate of infant mortality, and a low life expectancy as a few ways Haiti has been negatively portrayed through the media.

“While I cannot deny these facts about Haiti, I have also come to understand that this is the same country whereby access to education is very limited and intricately interwoven with socioeconomic status,” said Jean-Pierre,

“School success is distressingly low, and the main medium of instruction is a language that many Haitian intellectuals consider a foreign language for most Haitians.”

Jean-Pierre realized that Haiti would not be able to raise the standard of human dignity for its citizens and would not be able to compete in the local, regional and global markets if the problem of education was not properly addressed.

Thus he made the decision to start up the Fondasyon Onè pou Ayiti (Honor for Haiti Foundation). The Honor for Haiti Foundation (FONHOH), according to its website (, was created to develop a long-term strategy for changing education and economic opportunities in Haiti, particularly in the rural region of Lagoun. It was founded in 2005 and is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit.

There are three phases FONHOH has implemented, the first of which is to obtain land and build a school. To date, 10 acres of land have been bought and have received 200 hours of pro bono work from a team of architects and engineers.

Phase two is meant to create classes and educational services for both children and adults. The organization has already started offering classrooms for children who were displaced by the earthquake.

According to Jean-Pierre, more than 80 percent of school buildings collapsed in the capital region. Approximately 600 teachers, 200 education professionals and 1,300 university professors and students died in the earthquake.

Cyber training is also being offered to teachers in the area. Eleven laptop donations were flown to Haiti to equip a café for adult education. The adults were shown the fundamentals of word processing, pedagogy and language.

Finally, the third phase’s intent is to influence the national approach to education through teacher training.

According to, roughly 75 percent of all teachers do not have satisfactory training. Of those 75 percent, many have only a ninth or twelfth grade education with absolutely no teacher training.

In order to foster teacher training, the foundation has created partnerships with UMass. To date, a proposal has been submitted to the U.S. Department of Education in order to create a curriculum for a training program in multilingual education.

After the earthquake, Jean-Pierre traveled to Haiti three times.

“It was heartbreaking to see how the places that have influenced my life were all under rubble,” he said. “It was particularly difficult to see how the K-6 school where I collected my data for my dissertation turned into debris.”

“It was hard to call my friends and family members, as I was afraid of the news they might have about those who died,” he went on.

“I had to call anyway, at least to know who survived and who didn’t.”

Although Jean-Pierre saw a profusion of devastation after the earthquake, he believes there is still hope.

“It is important to notice that I’ve found a country that is devastated but a population that does not give up and is ready to face the challenge of making Haiti an honorable and decent place to live,” he said.

Amy Brennan may be reached at [email protected]