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Student Life

Years to Haiti

By Patrick Bradley

American University Alternative Break students take a picture with University of Fondwa students in Haiti.

AU Study Abroad students in Haiti.

Building a Compact

“We did not think it was safe, judicious, or wise to send college students into an immediate disaster area. We wanted to get the word out that we didn’t advise students to go at that time.”

Shoshanna Sumka, assistant director for global learning and leadership in the Center for Community Engagement & Service, saw the outpouring of support for Haiti after an earthquake ravaged the country in January of 2010. As a member of the board of directors for the alternative break organization Break Away, she also saw a need to keep students from rushing to serve in a dangerous situation.

After issuing a travel advisory, Break Away directors discussed what future service options could look like for Haiti. What resulted was the Haiti Compact, a group of five universities committed to helping rebuild the Caribbean nation. Of the dozen universities asked to apply, American University was selected as one of group’s five founding members alongside of Indiana University, William and Mary, and

“We were accepted because of our strong international program and our strong administrative support for the program,” Sumka says, “and because there had been such a strong student mobilization around the earthquake.”

The immediate priority for the Compact: assess conditions on the ground in Haiti.

Field Work

In June 2010, the Haiti Compact led an exploratory trip to Port au Prince and the surrounding areas. The seven day trip was led by a group of fifteen people, including a handful of students. The Compact met with twenty organizations, from grassroots groups to larger associations like the Red Cross.

“Were able to, by interviewing and by doing a site visit, discern which groups we wanted to partner with and which weren’t ready yet,” Sumka explains.

AU chose to work with Fonkoze, a microfinance group dedicated to supporting women, and the Association of Peasants of Fondwa (APF), a group supporting women’s empowerment and a rural university destroyed in the quake.

“There were so many issues with violence against women in the camps,” Sumka explains. There was not a lot being done to address women’s issues. We felt like that was one of the groups where we could have an impact.”

In March 2011, Sumka returned to Haiti and the town of Fondwa with seven AU students. The group observed microfinance trainings, planted over 100 trees with agronomy students from the University of Fondwa, and laid the foundation for a five-year service commitment to the community.

“We built relationships, met a lot of people, and set the ground work for going back in future years,” Sumka tells. “We spent a lot of time learning and listening. From that, we’re supporting these organizations in the future.”

Invitations and Reports

As AU and the other Compact universities visited their organizations, leaders analyzed the work and collected data dealing with their specific areas of focus. Break Away has released the Haiti Compact report – a guide for any university considering service work in Haiti. The report has, and will continue to be, presented at conferences for domestic and international universities alike.

“It’s a call for support because there’s need, but it’s important to look at how we do it,” Sumka explains. “It’s important to partner with organizations that are well respected in their communities, talk with government agencies so there’s coordination, and support the dignity of the Haitian people.”

Having watched the crisis in Haiti from the earthquake until now, Sumka and the Compact have invested themselves in Haiti’s future.

“We’ve made a commitment of up to five years, but it could take another ten or twenty years,” she says. “I hope that [Haiti]’s able to address the issues of inequality, discrimination, and distribution of resources, and that the alternative break movement may play a small part in that.”

To read the Haiti Compact report, click here.

To learn about AU's Alternative Breaks program, click here.