Daniel Tillias, an alumnus of HELP and cofounder of SAKALA, leads a group of young people in Cité Soleil. (Photograph courtesy of Conor Bohan, HELP) 

The second of four children born to a merchant and a truck driver in northern Haiti, Anne Martine Augustin still had the audacity to dream of going to college. The odds were long, though, and they got longer when she lost first her mother, at age 16, and then her father, a year later. But somehow she managed to maintain her straight “A” grade-point average, which made her eligible to apply for a scholarship from the Haitian Education and Leadership Program (HELP), an organization that provides full financial support for academically motivated Haitian students to attend college in Haiti.

HELP was founded by Conor Bohan, an American citizen who first went to Haiti in 1996 as a student teacher. “When I went to Haiti, I was in the classroom with these students who were as smart as any of the students that I had gone to school with, who were as hardworking as the people I had gone to school with in the US,” Bohan recalls. “The lack of opportunity that they had was completely astounding to me.” Just a few months after arriving in the country, Bohan paid for one of his students to go to medical school, but understanding that she was just one among many bright young people who lacked access to higher education for financial reasons, he became determined to do more. He launched HELP later that year.

Over the course of its 20-year history, HELP has supported just over 300 students. That may not sound like a lot of students, but it is still the largest university scholarship program in Haiti, a country where just 1 percent of high school graduates attend college. In addition to footing the bill for students’ university tuition, HELP provides housing, stipends for food and transportation, career services, computer lab access, and other services, including additional classes in leadership, information technology, and English.

Directed by Bohan, who now works out of an office in New York City, HELP is staffed by a small but committed team based in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. These individuals are largely first-generation college graduates passionate about extending the experience they’ve had to other Haitians. Besides administering the organization’s services, they mentor the students individually, working one-on-one with each beneficiary throughout the course of her college career.

HELP students have an 84 percent graduation rate from university, compared with an estimated 40 percent across Haiti (official statistics on university graduation are not kept in Haiti; this figure is based on a recent doctoral dissertation on the topic). They go on to earn an average salary of $15,000 (compared with a national average of $820), and 90 percent of them stay and work in Haiti (compared with just 20 percent of university graduates nationwide). There’s no doubt that the program’s impact has been dramatic.

But HELP wants to do more than lift individual students out of poverty. Its goals are actually much more far-reaching; specifically, the nonprofit wants to use higher education as a tool to create a homegrown Haitian middle class—a core group of young professionals willing and able to transform a deeply stratified postcolonial society.

Know-How and “Know-Why”

This strategic focus on higher education as a tool for equitable sustainable development is anomalous in Haiti, where international aid typically targets what are considered the most immediate, pressing problems: disaster relief, public health, and primary education. But according to Patrick Attie, founder and director of Ecole Supérieure d’Infotronique d’Haïti, the nation’s premier technology university, the notion that many aid agencies have that higher education is an unaffordable luxury is flawed. “The traditional thinking says, we need to have primary education first, then secondary education next, before we start thinking about higher education,” he says. “[But] this thinking is very wrong, because higher education provides the resources for basic primary and secondary. So as long as [higher education is] not good, the pipeline doesn’t work.”

Beyond training high-quality teachers, Attie continues, a strong system of higher education would provide something else critically important for Haiti: qualified local researchers to focus on strategic challenges such as energy security, water security, and food security. “We are having experts coming all the time that we pay a fortune to because [they] have PhDs,” Attie says. It would be far preferable, he argues, if this high-skilled knowledge economy work could be taken on by Haitian researchers. “Otherwise we spend millions of dollars forever, having researchers come in for one month, two months, six months, and then go back.”

To establish such a cadre of homegrown professionals, Haiti must overcome two problems. The first—lack of access to university education for 99 percent of Haitian youth—is compounded by a second: brain drain. As noted earlier, 80 percent of Haiti’s college graduates leave the country in search of economic opportunity. Aware that it would be futile to tackle the first problem without addressing the second, HELP began to equip students to create economic opportunities for themselves and one another within Haiti early on—by placing students in internships, cultivating strong alumni networks, and perhaps most important, fostering a culture of youth empowerment.

“My experiences with HELP have made me believe that young people can do great things, if they know their power, if they know they can work together despite their differences,” says Leo Charles, a third-year economics major at Quisqueya University, located in Port-au-Prince. “Certainly there’s many ways to have development in the country, but if you don’t have people who are educated, you can’t go anywhere.”

By practicing leadership and project management skills, first in their classes at HELP and then in their internships, Charles explains, he and his fellow students gain not only know-how (specific skills in their field) but also “know-why”—a consciousness of themselves as change agents with efficacy and purpose. “I don’t just study about economics and afterward have a big business and make profit for myself,” says Charles. “We have to think about the community.”

Anne Martine Augustin, now a HELP graduate with a BS in electrical engineering, plays a key role these days in promoting that sense of community. She is the cofounder of ACTIVEH, Haiti’s first pan-university student organization. With more than 100 members, ACTIVEH extends many of the core elements of HELP to other Haitian college students, organizing 60 summer internships and 2,000 volunteer service hours a year. As a youth organizer and budding social entrepreneur, Augustin is relying heavily on her network of fellow HELP graduates to accomplish her goals and provide opportunities for many more individuals. “Because I am a HELP alumna, I know people in different sectors,” says Augustin. “It’s a base of talent I can draw from. Ten years from now, we will have a lot of people in important decision-making positions, and then you are really going to see the difference.”

Paying It Forward

Positive attitudes like Augustin’s are common in HELP circles: After all, a pillar of the program is developing confidence among Haitian youth. But can a program that has served only slightly more than 300 students in 20 years create change on a meaningful scale? Is there hope for an emergent middle class in a nation where the yawning gap between widespread poverty and tightly concentrated elite wealth remains nearly impossible for individuals to bridge?

The answers to those questions remain elusive, but there are positive signs: Augustin’s ACTIVEH is one, and other HELP graduates have launched similar initiatives. Five HELP grads recently helped sponsor a hackathon, in which participants team up to quickly create new software—or “apps”—to address community needs; another has created an after-school program in a tough neighborhood. One HELP alum has become a professor at a Haitian university, and four are completing graduate degrees abroad, with plans to come back to Haiti and teach.

Meanwhile, HELP’s director of student services, Smyrne Saintil (a graduate of the program), just turned away more than 300 applicants for this year’s scholarships, all of whom were straight-A students. (The program did award scholarships to 25 students.)

HELP’s annual operating budget is $2 million, 85 percent of which comes in the form of grants or gifts from foundations, corporations, or individual donors. But that formula may soon shift. Five years ago, HELP began implementing a plan to grow its budget in a more reliable and sustainable way, and to gain more control over it. Beginning in 2011, HELP began asking each of its enrolling students to pledge 15 percent of his or her first nine years of post-college income as a donation back to the program. The first graduate began paying in 2015, going from beneficiary to donor literally overnight.

It’s hard to predict salaries in Haiti, HELP founder Conor Bohan cautions, but he estimates that in seven years, once nine cohorts of students are all contributing at the same time, the new pay-it-forward model could provide 20 to 30 percent of HELP’s funding. “So far we have 100 percent participation from eligible graduates,” says Bohan. “At full strength, this will be a significant percentage of our budget.”

That level of participation also demonstrates that the importance of this new funding model goes beyond its financial support to the program, says current HELP student (and budding economist) Leo Charles. For Charles, the impending shift from beneficiary to donor is about taking his place as a changemaker. “Someone helped me,” says Charles. “Why can’t I do the same for others? We have to do our best to do for others.”

Augustin agrees. “It’s not an obligation; it’s more than that,” she says of the 15 percent annual contribution. “We are paying to help someone else that is in the same situation we were in—and we are supporting someone to empower themselves.”

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