Alternative break seeks hope for Haiti

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For spring break 2015, seven University of Rochester students and their professor spent a week in Haiti. The trip was part of a course called Achievement and Motivation in Developing Countries (CSP 365) taught by Dr. Andrew Elliot from the Department of Clinical and Social Sciences in Psychology. The class had a unique composition of students with majors in psychology, business, engineering and microbiology; additionally, three of the students were of Haitian descent.

Unlike conventional, top-down, project-focused aid, the goal of this trip was to speak directly with and learn directly from the Haitian people in order to fully understand the barriers they encounter with regard to education. The specific area of interest was Borgne, a rural village in northern Haiti. In Borgne, the group stayed at a hospital partnered with Rochester-based organization Haiti Outreach Pwoje Espwa (H.O.P.E). Ultimately, the group was striving to discover ways to work together with local educational leaders to promote positive, sustainable change in the community.

Of the many memorable moments that occurred during this trip, the realization of global economic disparity was perhaps the most jarring. After the second night at the H.O.P.E. Hospital in Borgne, the group woke before dawn and traveled to the village of Tibuk.  From there, they embarked on a day-long 13 mile expedition into the Haitian mountains to meet teachers and students at schools in remote, rural villages. The stark contrast between the schools located in these far-flung Haitian villages and the typical American public school was shocking. The first school that the group visited consisted of a pair of small tin shacks crammed full of children sitting upon poorly constructed wooden benches.

The vast majority of attending students lacked access to reading material, and the school was unable to provide books to every student due to limited resources. In talking with the children, it became evident that none of them had seen a computer or even knew what a computer was. Some students trekked through the mountains for over an hour each day to attend class.  Many children yearned to pursue high school and higher education, but were severely limited in doing so by financial restrictions.

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“This trip opened my eyes to something that I had only understood in theory. Seeing the conditions of the schools made me realize that there is other work I could, and should be doing,” said junior Simone Arnold ’16. This encounter touched everyone deeply, and was the foundation for the student’s reflections throughout the week.

During the week, the group met several community leaders in Borgne and was especially moved by one local entrepreneur: a woman by the name of Rosie.  “Rosie is a vivacious, generous woman who is well into old age. She regaled the group with stories of creating fishing ponds, harvesting crops, crafting satchels and baskets to sell to visitors, and caring for not only her mother, but also five other young men in the village by housing them,” said Professor Elliot.  A religious woman, she stated that everything she does for her village is only done because God wills her to remain in this world instead of succumbing to old age. “If there are any limits to human ability that are wrought by old age, Rosie certainly shatters them. She showed the group how human potential and effort are limitless, and how unrelenting generosity is vital in our actions.”

The group’s time in Haiti was a culmination of new experiences. For some, it was an opportunity to travel outside of the country for the first time.  One of the students on the trip had never even been on an airplane before!  For others, the trip offered the novel experience of living in a developing nation and seeing a community that lacks access to electricity and irrigation. For three students, this was another visit to a country that was once called home.

While each person saw Haiti through different lenses, the collective purpose  of the group was the same. “We were not there on a mission trip or to build homes or to otherwise find a way to ‘fix’ Haiti. Rather, we were there to learn,” said Professor Elliot.  The group came to immerse themselves in Haitian culture and to seek to understand the frameworks through which the community develops by talking with and getting to know those living in Borgne.  Each person strived to put aside the common biases of Haiti as a desolate, impoverished nation that the American media portrays and instead listened, observed, and learned about the complex hardships that many Haitians face.

Aside from the harrowing adversity that the group observed, they also saw a side of Haiti that is rarely portrayed to the American public.  In addition to the aesthetic beauty within the country, they saw how steadfast, generous, and selfless many Haitians truly are. When the students struggled to descend the mountain on their hike to rural schools, it was school teachers who took them by the arms and guided them down the steep, rocky mountains, risking their own safety to protect those of strangers. The group interviewed community members who dedicated their time and energy to providing resources towards education and health care for their fellow villagers.  Giving back to the community was a common theme among those that the group had the privilege of meeting.

“Haiti is a nation that gives pause to all who witness the extreme beauty and humanity of the country being contrasted with the hardships of poverty,” said Maximilian Brimmer ’17, a psychology major.  “To have the opportunity to see how people in different cultures live, laugh, and struggle is so powerful because it drives us to enact real change in the world.”  The team left Borgne feeling a mixture of inspiration and challenge.

Emily Greenwood, a PhD candidate in Social Psychology was moved to question what can be done to bridge or mitigate such economic disparity.  “Witnessing the daily struggle of intense human poverty has left me feeling awe, heartbreak, and frustration. This powerful experience leaves me with the weighty question: what can and should I do, in order to be more than a mere spectator to human suffering?” asked Greenwood.  Discovering answers to these questions is a process that will take time, and the first step to enacting any sort of change is having the willingness to listen, learn, and experience from the point of view of those who understand the complex issues firsthand.

While there is a lot that can be done to help those in Haiti, there is much that must first be learned. Thus, as the students settle back into their familiar routines in a country that provides endless opportunities, they want to keep these difficult questions circulating. These students also want to challenge anyone who will listen to ask themselves these same questions. Until the answers are discovered, they will hold fast to the emotions that they felt while visiting Haiti in the hopes that, one day, these emotions will translate into action.

Spotlight on Social Sciences Alumni:Kathryn Hefner

Name: Kathryn Hefner ’05
Occupation: Psychology Predoctoral Intern at Hunter Holmes McGuire Veteran’s Hospital (current). Beginning 10/2014: Postdoctoral Fellow at West Haven VA/Yale in Addiction Research & Treatment
Education (UR and additional): BA in Clinical and Social Psychology, University of Rochester, 2005 ; MS in Clinical Psychology, University of Wisconsin-Madison, 2008 ; PhD in Clinical Psychology, University of Wisconsin-Madison, anticipated May 2014
Current city/state of residence: Richmond, VA
Family: Husband – Isaac Ray (UR Class of ’06)
Community activities: I’m not sure working on my dissertation counts, but that’s what I do in my spare time!


Why did you choose to attend the University of Rochester?

My dad encouraged me to consider it, because he had wanted my brother to go to UR so he could do engineering and also pursue his music interests at Eastman. He ended up going elsewhere, but anyway, when I visited the campus, I kind of fell in love – the campus is beautiful, it was a good size for me, and it is a great school. Another selling point was the fact that Rochester is so strong in Psychology and Brain & Cognitive Sciences. When I visited, I met with Barbara Ilardi, a professor emeritus from the Psychology department, and we hit it off. I later TA’d for her twice.

When and how did you choose your major?

I was able to take IB/AP Psychology during my junior year in high school. Up until then, my favorite subject was English, but I discovered a new passion for psychology and didn’t look back. I had the advantage of knowing what I wanted to study before setting foot on campus. Because I completed most of my Psych major requirements early, I was also able to double minor in English and Brain and Cognitive Sciences.

What activities were you involved in as a student and what did you gain from them?

I was involved in choir, which allowed me to maintain engagement with my love of music. Actually, if there is anything I regret it’s that I wasn’t involved in more activities as an undergraduate.

 What did you do immediately after graduation? How did you decide to take that path?

I did an Intramural Research Training Award fellowship at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, MD. This is a program designed for students who are planning to attend medical or graduate school to gain more research experience. I worked in a behavioral neuroscience lab, and although it was a bit of a departure from my ultimate goal to do clinical work, it was a great experience to have and made me much more competitive for graduate school, and has continued to benefit me throughout my career.  Also, the 2 years I spent in the DC area were some of the best of my life. I highly encourage others to apply to this program.

How do you balance your work and professional life?

This is something I think about a lot, given the importance of balance for a clinical psychologist. Graduate school can be demanding, and there’s always more you can be doing – but if I worked all the time, I wouldn’t be a very good therapist to my patients.  I try also to nurture my relationships with friends and family members, who live far away, spend time with my husband, walk my dog, and talk to other students in my program about our experiences. Of course, it’s also very important to have time to myself doing things I like to do. Sometimes it feels like a juggling act, but it’s not impossible.

How are you still connected with the University?

The fact that I met my husband at UR means that it is very close to our hearts. We still have some friends who live in Rochester, and try to visit when we can. Amazingly, just about everyone from my freshman year dorm hallway is still close and stays in touch.

What advice do you have for current students?

Choose to study what you really love and what you can realistically see yourself doing for the next several years (at least)! Following a career path that you are pressured into by your parents or think is what you “should” be doing is not going to make you happy in 5 years, and you’ll have to start over. In contrast, not thinking seriously about your future career options can also land you in the same boat.