When walking across the Ramapo College campus, most wouldn’t think Clifford Denis and Roselaure Charles are anything but average college students. Denis is an engineering physics major and Charles film. They both hold down jobs on campus, live in the dorms, and spend their free time doing homework, studying and spending time with friends.
But, the road these two Haitian students took to get to Ramapo was very different than most.
After the 2010 earthquake that devastated Haiti, officials at Ramapo College were considering several different ways the institution could help. “Because we are an institute of higher learning, we thought the best way to give back would be to offer the school itself to students in Haiti who could benefit from an American education,” Eduoard Eloi, the Manager of Berrie Center Operations at the college, said. Eloi, who moved to Mahwah from Haiti “many years ago” worked with College President Peter Mercer and a committee of professors – Lisa Lutter in the art department, Warner Wada, a painting professor, and Shalom Gorewitz, a video, art and new media professor – to put together the ‘Haiti Scholarship Fund,’ and to find its first two recipients.
Mercer waived tuition and fees for the Haitian students, but the committee had to raise room and board for two students, which amounted to $28,000. “We raised the money last year through payroll deductions from the faculty and staff, and donations from members of the Ramapo community, as well as others in the area who wanted to support the effort,” Eloi said.
The next step was to choose the two recipients. “We wanted to give the scholarship to students who were academically eligible but financially needy,” Eloi said. Last school year, Eloi went to Haiti to interview about 15 eligible students. They filled out applications, turned over their academic records, and waited for the committee to make a decision. Denis and Charles were chosen, he said, “because they are enthusiastic. They see the possibility of a better life.”
A stipulation of the scholarship is that after their graduation, slated for 2015, the students return to Haiti for a minimum of three years. The hope, Eloi said, is that the duo will take what they learned on the Mahwah campus, and use it to make a difference in their country.
According to Denis, 21, the opportunity to be educated in America is an immeasurable one. “In Haiti, it is actually very hard to get into college,” he said. “It’s very competitive. Out of two to four thousand students who apply, about 200 make it in.” Before the quake, the country had about eight institutions of higher learning. Denis said the earthquake “took quite a few of those down, and parts of others were destroyed and can’t be used now.”
The education system is, “very different” from what Americans are used to, he said. “There, everything is done through memorization, you have no visuals, no labs or anything like that. Here you can actually see what you’re learning.” After 13 years in primary and secondary schools, most do not get the chance to go to college.
“And, there are days in Haiti that you just can’t go to school because something political happened, people are in the streets and it is not safe to travel to school,” Denis said. “You don’t see that too much here.”
Denis said he wants to go back to Haiti after his four years at Ramapo and start an industry, “because that will create jobs.”
Roselaure Charles, 25, wanted to come to Mahwah “for a lot of reasons. It is a great opportunity to study abroad, discover a new culture, people, language, food, everything.” In Haiti, Charles attended the Cine Institute, a film school founded by an American. After graduation from Ramapo, she said she hopes to help her country “by making documentaries, and showing what we are going through to the world.”
Eloi said both students performed very well during their first semester, and have been supported throughout their first year here by the “constant efforts” of the committee that decided these students deserved the scholarships. “Making this work is really a group effort and I can’t say enough about all of the work the committee does for these students everyday.”
Eloi said the committee has been “lucky” to have a lot of support from the greater Ramapo community to fund the scholarships. More than 60 percent of the college’s staff has donated, Dr. Timothy Finley, a professor who gave the first donation, gave $10,000 over the four years. The Ramapo Federation of State College Teachers union promised to match that donation. The Rose Foundation, a Haitian Foundation founded by the Mahwah Bar and Grill and local Chef Pierre Romain, gave $5K.
Now, however, the committee is focused on raising the money that would allow for the students to stay at Ramapo next year. If the group can’t raise the $28K room and board, Denis and Charles “won’t be able to come back,” Eloi said.
To help the effort, the committee is putting on the Second Annual “Haiti Demain: Haiti Tomorrow” event at the college’s Berrie Center. The event is a celebration of Haitian culture – a showing of Jonathan Demme’s film, “The Agronomist,” which tells the story of Jean Dominique, a performance by the Ramapo Chorale, and Haitian food made by Chef Pierre. Demme, who Eloi said has been a “huge help” to the effort, also donated Haitian art to be bid on during a silent auction.
“Last year, the event raised awareness,” Eloi said. “This year, we want to raise money for the students to stay,” Eloi said.
The Haiti Demain is this Sunday, March 11, starting at 3 p.m. All locals are invited to attend."The scholarship fund is a 501(c)3," Eloi said. "And it's a good place for people to help, because you don't have to wonder where your money goes. You will see the result of your donation three years from now at graduation."
And, the students agree. "I think people should come to support education," Charles said. "I think because of the earthquake, people saw Haiti needed help, and were looking for how they could do that. This is a way to help."
Sunday's "Haiti Demain" schedule includes:
3 to 7 p.m. – Silent Auction
3 p.m. – Prayer for Haiti – Performance by the Ramapo Chorale
3:30 p.m. – Film screening, “The Agronomist.” A film by Jonathan Demme about Haitian radio journalist Jean Dominique, an outspoken critic of the country’s dictatorships who was assassinated in 2000.
5 p.m. – Rodman Gallery Reception for Haitian Scholarship Recipients
Those who cannot attend the event can donate checks made out to the Ramapo College Foundation. Donations can be sent to:
Haiti Scholarship Fund
Ramapo College Foundation
505 Ramapo Valley Road
Mahwah, NJ 07430
Get more information on how to donate by emailing Eloi at email@example.com.
Haiti Day is made possible by the Ramapo College Foundation, The Ramapo College Haiti Scholarship Committee, The Ramapo College Galleries, Jonathan Demme and the North Jersey Chapter of LINKS Incorporated.