“I was actually a little angry. I didn’t want to just sit and write a paper on Haiti – I wanted to do something and make a real impact. I’d been saying I would go to Haiti for months and finally, I decided to act instead of just saying I would.” Senior Alysha R. of Northampton, MA is one of twelve students in Stoneleigh-Burnham School’s first class of International Baccalaureate Diploma Candidates. As a capstone piece of the two-year International Baccalaureate Diploma, students in the program must write a 4,000-word essay on a topic of their choosing. Alysha had a preexisting interest in Haiti, even before the 2010 earthquake brought international attention to the small, impoverished island nation, but when she had to choose a topic for her ‘extended essay,’ she says she immediately thought it was the perfect opportunity to learn more and delve deeper. After working with her extended essay advisor, Shawn Durrett, Alysha decided to focus her paper on the question, “How did the 2010 earthquake open the world’s eyes to the struggles of Haiti?” As if 4,000 words wouldn’t be challenge enough, Alysha elected to write her essay in French, a language she has studied throughout her years at Stoneleigh-Burnham.
Alysha spent the summer and fall of 2012 working on her paper and dreaming of travelling to Haiti to follow through on her commitment to “make an impact.” She started researching travel and volunteer opportunities on the island nation and found the nonprofit organization Volunteers for Peace. The nonprofit has been organizing volunteers around the world in service projects since 1982, but has been in Haiti only since the 2010 earthquake. She says she was drawn to the organization by their commitment to service projects “that ensure the impact of volunteer work is community-wide and not just benefiting individuals.” Alysha realized that she would need two resources to make her trip a reality: money and time. Alysha’s father, a fluent Creole speaker, had travelled to Haiti after the earthquake to help translate in health clinics, so she was aware the plane tickets would be expensive. After discussing the trip with her parents, they agreed that she could go, but only if she raised 75% of the money it would cost, which included plane tickets and the $500 Volunteers for Peace fee for room and board. Alysha was also able to convince her Dad to go with her.
As a high school student without a part-time job, Alysha organized a bake sale during the School’s Family Weekend in the fall. Faculty, students, and staff contributed baked items to her sale and she also collected donations.
Alysha and her Dad bought their tickets and arranged to spend twelve days in Haiti over the U.S. Thanksgiving holiday. Alysha says that the trip was “so different from my previous international travel experiences. To start, time is just so different there. The concept of being late doesn’t really exist.” She also recalls that the only time they had electricity was from 6 – 9 p.m. when the generator was running. Alysha and her Dad were part of a nineteen person volunteer team consisting of eleven international volunteers and eight Haitians. Alysha says that during their time in Haiti the service team turned into “one big family” as they worked together on multiple projects. “We were all very different and from very different backgrounds, but we came together and really bonded over our work.” The work for the most part was very physical – the team worked at the earthquake-damaged CODEHA community center to repair fences and plant plantain trees and over 100 coffee plants. Alysha also spent part of her time in a local school teaching girls the alphabet and numbers in English. Alysha says she found her students to be, “so eager to learn but without the resources they needed.”
What Alysha discovered in Haiti has galvanized her commitment to service. And her interest in and subsequent trip to Haiti is nearly the perfect example of what the International Baccalaureate Diploma Program aims to accomplish for its students. The program is designed to allow students to pursue their passions, but with rigor, depth, and international-mindedness. “The trip definitely had a strong impact on me. I want to major in college in French and Business and hopefully take those skills to Haiti. Ultimately I wish I could do something to help improve or work on the infrastructure challenges there.”
Alysha’s paper, like those of the other IB Diploma Candidates, has been submitted to the IB organization who will assess it using international standards. With just a few months remaining before her IB exams and the end of her high school career, Alysha aims to take what she has learned through her paper and through her travel experience to college and beyond. Depending on resources, she hopes to travel to Haiti again, possibly even this summer after graduation. “I’m not comfortable with just one visit or just giving money,” she says. “I want to continue actually doing something hands-on to help.”