By Mary Beth Marklein, USA TODAY
CORAL GABLES, Fla. — As he prepares to help oversee $5 billion in reconstruction spending in Haiti, former president Bill Clinton paints a challenging but hopeful picture. There’s much to do: Haitians displaced by the magnitude-7 earthquake in January need sturdy housing, nutritious food and clean water, to name the basics.
But Clinton also says higher education will be a top priority.
On his preliminary to-do list: help pay tuition for private university students whose families were hurt, killed or lost jobs when the quake hit; recruit faculty to Haiti to teach; and rebuild the universities. Just four of the public University of Haiti’s 13 campuses escaped serious structural damage, Clinton says.
“We’ve got to get those colleges open again,” he told a crowd of student activists at the third annual Clinton Global Initiative University, which wrapped up Sunday at the University of Miami.
A few days earlier, Haiti’s parliament approved a commission, to be co-chaired by Clinton and Haitian Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive, to manage how billions of dollars are spent over the next 18 months and to keep a check on corruption.
Saturday, Clinton downplayed big problems but urged vigilance. “I plead with you, don’t get bored with this,” he told reporters. “Hold us all accountable.”
Plans to reopen universities — Clinton called them his “marching orders” — were developed over a lunch with presidents of American and Haitian colleges.
“An incredible number of (U.S.) institutions feel they’re in a position to assist,” says Eduardo Padrón, president of Miami Dade College.
“The one institutional strength Haiti has had is its higher-education system,” adds University of Miami president Donna Shalala. Because a well-trained workforce will be critical to Haiti’s recovery, she says, “we cannot let that fail.”
A number of U.S. schools are hosting students dislocated by the quake. But many Haitian students chose to remain at home, says Conor Bohan, founder of Haitian Education & Leadership Program, a non-profit based in New York and Port-au-Prince that gives scholarships to Haitian college students. Of this year’s 108 scholars, two died in the quake; more than 80 are or were involved in relief efforts.
One recipient, Stanley Clermont, 23, an electrical engineering senior at the private L’Université Quisqueya, was helping organize exams when the rumbling started.
“It was that day that God personally talked to me,” he told conference participants. “It was then I decided to use what I’ve got” to help his community.
He was able to spend a month translating for the British Red Cross before taking a factory job to support family members. He hopes to establish an electric plant in Haiti. And he still hopes to earn his degree by October. “I’m trying to find a way, if possible, to handle the job and the final thesis together.”
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