06.04.2010 -

Jacky Lumarque: Haitian university rector, innovator and agitator

Jacky Lumarque Haitian university rector

A new model of education has emerged from the ruins of Quisqueya University in Haiti, which was entirely destroyed when the earthquake hit on 12 January 2010, killing 17 students and staff.

Driven by skills-based volunteering and solidarity, the initiative is rooted in the community and overseen by dynamic rector Jacky Lumarque.
He spoke to EduInfo while in UNESCO for the Haiti Forum on 24 March.

Where were you when the earthquake hit?

I was at the campus museum at the opening of an exhibition of Haitian-American artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. The museum is the former residence of President Magloire and the rest of the campus is brand new. I stepped out into the botanical garden just before the earthquake hit. Both old and new buildings were destroyed, including the teachers’ residence. Then came the screaming, teachers and students running out covered in dust, other students calling out from under the rubble.  

What was your reaction?

First I tried to rescue people, along with two students. But we didn’t have the equipment to release those who were trapped, there was no electricity and the phones weren’t working. So I walked the six kilometres to the local radio station, Signal FM, and made an appeal over the airwaves. Around 20 youths turned up. They were poor and semi-illiterate but were willing to make huge efforts for students more fortunate than themselves. For me they were real heroes.  

Describe the immediate aftermath of the earthquake.

We fed the trapped people for three days – we passed in food and drink and spoke with them. People died with a certain serenity – they knew we were trying to save them. When there were no more survivors we had to somehow bring out the bodies. We were the first institution to bring out all our dead and give them a decent burial. We organized a big funeral mass with (writer and artist) Frankétienne, and in time we will commemorate them with a memorial on campus.

Outside the university the situation was chaotic: homeless families lived and slept on the streets with no organization for sanitation or waste disposal. It was unhealthy, even dangerous. National institutions were powerless to deal with the scale of the disaster. International agencies and NGOs didn’t know where to begin. There was no coordination.  

How did the skills-based volunteering begin?

Ten days after the earthquake, Quisqueya had organized a volunteer system. First the medical students set up in a tent on the parking lot. They were supervised initially by their teachers, then by a team of Slovak doctors who arrived with medicine and equipment looking for somewhere to work. Then the students set up a mobile clinic. After that came fresh water distribution points. The engineering and environmental students went out into the streets, helped people organize themselves into committees to manage the improvised camps as well as introducing work on zoning, sanitation and waste management. The university became a giant volunteering machine! 

Eleven more tents went up. Education students were given a crash course in psychosocial support and put it into practice almost at once again on the streets. They also became involved in running art therapy workshops for children at the weekends, 150 at a time, in one of the tents. I said to them: “The street is your university now”.

At the weekend students gathered with their teachers to formalize the non-formal education they had been getting during the week, or to put theory on the practice. We are working on a system to give them academic credits for this work. It changed the paradigm of education for them. They realised that further education doesn’t have to be one-way, that it doesn’t have to take place within four walls with an all-knowing teacher dispensing knowledge. With the volunteering initiative, knowledge is acquired in the street and the teacher accompanies the process. We are de-institutionalising knowledge.  

Were students able to continue studying?

We wired up one of the tents. We call it “the digital tent”. Videoconferences were held with sister universities in Montreal and Paris for students doing master’s degrees. We are looking into online classes to enable students who have almost finished their courses to graduate.  

What is the next step?

The next session was supposed to start in late January with 400 to 500 new students. The selection process was halted by the earthquake. Now we are proposing to admit them all, give them a basic grounding or foundation course of 15 weeks’ general education combined with short courses which correspond to the needs of the people made homeless by the earthquake. These courses would be open to regular students as well and include basic management, logistics, first aid, risk prevention, community organization, etc.

The big challenge is to get the university up and running in a sustainable way, before the rubble has even been cleared and new buildings begun. I want to set up a system of sponsorship by which donors would support individual students to the tune of $200 a month. This would enable them to meet their basic living expenses while they continued volunteering, but also to pay tuition costs and thus contribute to the running and staffing of the university. We badly need this sponsorship as we are a private university and get nothing from the state.  

Wearing your other hat as chairperson of the Presidential Commission for Education in Haiti, has the earthquake changed your view of what needs to be done to rebuild Haiti’s education system?

Completely. In the light of the devastation of the education system, I have redrafted proposals for a National Education Pact to submit to the Haitian Government. Today the question is not so much getting pupils “back into school” as to get all Haitian children into school – including the 25 per cent of five-to-eleven-year-olds who did not attend school before the earthquake hit. I have consulted a wide cross-section of parents, teachers, students, and education NGOs on this issue. The education budget is currently 9 per cent of Haiti’s GDP. I would like to see it rise to 25 per cent in 2015 and 30 per cent in 2025. The objective would be 100 per cent enrolment, free education, textbooks, materials and a hot meal daily for each child. Accelerated teacher training is essential for this to work. The proposals are ambitious but we can’t afford to have a two-speed system any more.  

CNN report on the art therapy programme for children run by education students Quisqeya University 

Document explaining the recovery strategy and the skills-based volunteering initiative of Quisqueya University (in French)  

UNESCO Haiti page



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