By Katharine Webster
During last summer’s sweltering weather, Dayana Alabre and another student research assistant traveled to UMass Lowell’s Haiti Development Studies Center in Les Cayes one night each week for a live, online discussion in their British Literary Traditions class.
Alabre and Ralph Douyon live outside the port city of Les Cayes in areas that often suffer electric brownouts. The problem only got worse after Hurricane Matthew slammed into Haiti’s southern peninsula in October, leaving Les Cayes’ infrastructure in tatters.
Yet week after week, Alabre and Douyon make the trek to the center, which has more reliable electricity than most places thanks to its solar array and generator, to attend virtual “office hours” with their English professors at UMass Lowell. That persistence, her high academic performance and her community service just won Alabre the Jack M. Wilson Presidential Scholarship.
“The work she does in Haiti, under sometimes difficult conditions, is extraordinary,” says Assoc. Prof. Keith Mitchell, who has both students in his online American Literary Traditions class this semester. “English is not Dayana and Ralph’s native language, but that has not been a barrier to their success in the class.”
Alabre is more modest. At first, she took one class at a time through the Division of Online and Continuing Education, starting with College Writing I and II. Now she is studying full-time.
“We had to start slowly to help me improve my writing — because honestly, it was awful!” she laughs.
Alabre and Douyon are studying English so they can become teachers or get jobs working with other educational, scientific or aid organizations. In addition to their class-work, they are reading widely in English: Honors College Dean Jim Canning has sent them more than 70 books over the past 18 months, from Shakespearean comedies to Robert Parker’s Boston-based detective novels.
Canning also asked Mitchell for suggestions, and Mitchell introduced the students to novelist and essayist Edwidge Danticat, a Haitian-American who is now one of Alabre’s favorite writers.
But Alabre’s first love is physics. She and Douyon use Skype to attend some of Physics Chairman Robert Giles’ classes, including an interdisciplinary honors seminar, Science and Technology in an Impoverished World.
Alabre and Douyon both work 20 hours a week for the Haiti Development Studies Center (HSDC), which was founded by Giles in 2013. The center is a base for groups of UMass Lowell students and faculty to learn about Haiti and explore technologies that may provide sustainable solutions for its problems.
Several successful projects have come out of the honors class, including the BioBubbler, an inexpensive sand filtration system that removes bacteria from drinking water (it won a major award in the 2014 DifferenceMaker competition) and cooking fuel made from agricultural and wood waste to replace traditional wood charcoal (Haiti is severely deforested).
Alabre and Douyon work with the visiting students on developing the projects and demonstrating them in the community. They also translate when visiting students and faculty teach science workshops in local schools.
For the past few years, Giles has funded the Haiti Development center — and paid for Alabre’s and Douyon’s online English classes — through grants and his own funds. To create more sustainable funding, the Office of University Advancement is actively seeking donors to help with the center’s annual operating budget, including scholarships for up to four Haitian student research assistants. Giles says the scholarships are an investment in a country that needs more scientists and science educators.
“We’re trying to create more opportunity in Haiti by expanding the skilled workforce,” Giles says. “Dayana studies all day long. When I’m at the center and get up at 5:30 a.m., she’s already in a corner somewhere studying.”
In the meantime, Alabre is thrilled and grateful that her work earned her the $1,000 scholarship, which is awarded to only two students in the entire UMass system.
Upon learning of the award, “I couldn’t believe it. I was so shocked, so surprised,” she says. “Then when Professor Giles told me more about it and what it was for, I was really proud of myself.”