When I joined the NetHope team earlier this year as a Program Manager, I knew I would contend with the usual elements of managing projects: detailed spreadsheets, design documents, regular conference calls and shepherding systems implementation efforts along a timeline. I’ve spent my entire professional career working in corporate IT, so knowing I was taking on these tasks within a non-profit organization and contributing to global efforts to support people around the world excited me. I expected that my engagement with NetHope would make me feel a greater sense of accomplishment at the end of my days. What I didn’t anticipate was that I would get a chance to build meaningful, direct connections with so many of the young people we serve or how truly inspired I would be by them.
This September I had a unique opportunity to engage first hand in the latest NetHope Academy Internship Program in Haiti. I say it as a unique opportunity because although I was brought on to the team to oversee our implementations globally, it’s rare that I have an opportunity to spend extended time in the field.My focus is making sure that systems and standards are in place to make our Country Managers successful in supporting their local programs. However, in the case of our launch in Haiti this Fall (a.k.a Haiti 2.0), I was able to spend two full weeks meeting, talking with, eating with and becoming completely smitten by our new class of Academy interns!
On Day 1, I was probably just as nervous as our interns were! I felt I stood out like a sore thumb. I had met some of these students during their interviews so a few of them remembered me. This added to the self-imposed pressure I felt to memorize and learn how to pronounce all of their names as well. But that morning, as each student introduced themselves and talked about why they were participating in NetHope Academy, things went from conceptual to real very quickly. I was immediately blown away by the depth of the students' focus and their ability to articulate their vision for themselves: “I love my country, I want to be part be part of the rebuilding”, “If you want to help someone else, you have to be strong yourself” “I want to build an outsourcing business”, “The country needs us. We need to share everything we have with one another, to make Haiti the Haiti it was before [the earthquake].”
My initial vision of this bunch of eager young people brimming with energy and eager to sharpen their IT skills was immediately replaced by the reality – we’ve got a group of real game changers on our hands – and I get to be part of their journey to make a change in their community!
Over the two weeks, I did get to know the names of nearly all 30 interns by heart, but more importantly, I had a chance to build real connection with them. First, I developed respect for these young people, some traveling as far as two hours daily to make it to class each morning. I got to know Patrick Louis who arrived at least 30 minutes early to class every single day. Each morning when I arrived, Patrick was there. When I found out that he was getting up at the wee hours of the morning to study for a couple of hours before heading to class, I was even more impressed. When he shared with me that he hadn’t had power in his home for the last week, I was speechless. I asked Patrick what his motivations were and he said “NetHope expects a lot from me, and I expect a lot from NetHope Academy. If there’s ever a choice between two people to get to do something, I want to be at the top of the list.” He shared with me how he had apprenticed for nine months for an engineering company, being compensated only transportation fare and meals. He said “I need to be able to get a job so that I can support my family and I feel I can do that through NetHope.” When Patrick teased me about only speaking one language (he speaks four – Creole, French, English and Spanish). What could I say except, having met him, I’m more motivated to take seriously my own opportunities to learn.
I was naturally drawn to the eight women in our class but was surprised at the intrigue some of the young men in our class had for them as well…the young men wanted to know from the women: “How does it feel to be in IT, where there are so many men?” Each young lady was thoughtful as they responded to the barrage of questions – each asserting that IT is their passion and “it feels normal, natural, what do you think?” One of our young women interns, Annie Hertelou, shared with the group that her parents had really wanted her to be a nurse, but that was not the path she wanted to follow. Tabitha shared with the group her love of programming. Over the two weeks, I saw the ladies stand out as far as class participation – asking really great, tough questions of their instructors and responding insightfully to practice scenarios about customer service and professionalism in the workplace. Towards the end of my stay, I had a chance to speak one-on-one with Cassandra Fleurmond. Cassandra was definitely on the more quiet side and I was shocked when she approached me to tell me that my presence in the classroom each day gave her the confidence to stick with the program. She said “You accept everyone here as they are. My English is not as good as the others, but I feel like I can talk to you.” She thanked me and asked if we could keep in touch by email on a regular basis. I was floored by her outreach, as I was the one who was appreciative to be with her and her fellow interns.
The classroom was no stranger to guests representing all sorts of organizations and missions. The students were exposed to a collaborative mapping system called Open Street Map and learned how they could be an active part of developing accurate maps in their community. Boot Camp was grueling so we broke up the days with an occasional guest speaker. The interns had a surprise visit by a US-based comedian called Da Funny Man (James Stephens III), who tested out some of his best material to see how it would go over. The students cheered at his imitations of Ray Charles, Eddie Murphy and Michael Jackson. Later NetHope Academy Graduates came in to share their experience from the prior year and give the interns a look at what was next for them. I also had a chance to meet some special guests of one of our students.
The day I was preparing to head back to the US, I realized there had been quite a misunderstanding with the students. I was met by expressions of surprise by the students. “What do you mean you’re leaving? Won’t we see you every Friday for our labs??” It seems that I had prepared them that our lead instructor, Mark Wheatley, would be leaving at the end of the Boot Camp, but they thought I would be in Haiti long term. The realization that I was packed up and headed to the airport was followed by hugs and agreements that we would stay in touch. As I drove away, reflecting on how quickly time had passed – like a blink of an eye- I was grateful. Up until this point, I had seen myself as an observer on the outside, taking pictures, taking attendance and observing our progress… but clearly, the kids had come to accept me as part of their world. I can’t wait to see what they achieve.