It would be easy to assume that the younger generation is headed in the wrong direction. We are inundated with images of young people looking into the void of their cell phones and incessantly checking for updates and ‘likes’ on social media. Their constant need for self-affirmation by way of the ubiquitous selfie speaks for itself.
Or does it? If you think all 18-25 year olds fit this profile then you are getting it all wrong.
Recently I was invited to join a small group from Sewanee on a trip to Haiti. The group consisted of Deborah McGrath from the Biology Department, Pradip Malde from the Department of Art and Art History, and Dixon Myers, Coordinator of Outreach, along with five students (Elizabeth, Brooke, Geanina, Scott, and Duncan). Of note, all of these students have made multiple trips to Haiti over the last two to three years. The purpose of this trip was two-fold. First, they went to check on the progress of their existing project, which is primarily focused on agroreforestation as well as photographic documentation of the impact that this project is having on community development within rural Haiti. Second, they were making detailed plans to return in six weeks to lead a group of twenty more students, some of whom would hopefully take an interest in the project, thus ensuring its sustainability.
As an ophthalmologist, my purpose on the trip was to evaluate the local eye clinic to find out how I might be able to help improve the quality of their eye care. This took a modest amount of my time and thus I was able to spend the rest of my time observing the Sewanee team in action. We were based in the remote village of Cange, located two hours from Port au Prince and made famous by the book “Mountains Beyond Mountains.” My observations over the ensuing week gave me a renewed sense of hope and optimism about the future. What unfolded before me was an amazing collaborative interaction between faculty, Sewanee students, Haitian students, and farmers.
The faculty members are getting it right. Their single-minded devotion to the project and students was immediately obvious. They spent the better part of a week away from their families, offices, and creature comforts, living in less than ideal conditions, patiently guiding the undergraduates through the rigors of scientific investigation. They constantly challenged the students to be creative and to solve problems that required thoughtful integration of many diverse factors ranging from biology to broader socioeconomic considerations. Never did the faculty ask the students to do something that they were not willing to do themselves, and this included a nine hour hike up and down a jagged mountain, leading the students from Sewanee as well as five students from the local college, whose participation in the project was essential. At the top of the mountain we met with numerous Haitian farmers who had been previously selected to participate in the project. They were given the task of planting the coffee and mango trees. Each time we met another family it was like a reunion of long lost friends. The faculty’s enthusiasm for what they were doing made it clear to me that this was more than just a job to them. Their passion for the project, students, and farmers shined through as bright as the Haitian sun.
The students are getting it right. What I observed was nothing less than the transformation of young people’s lives. This occurred on a multitude of levels. They were becoming scientists and photographers in a lab that no university in America can compete with. Instead of fluorescent-lit classrooms surrounded by books and computers, these young people were crawling through the jungle beneath a canopy of coconut, banana, and papaya trees to evaluate a sapling coffee plant like a doctor examines a patient. Magnifying glasses and petri dishes appeared out of backpacks so that clippings of sick plants could be made. Sewanee students explained in surprisingly good Creole to their local counterparts what needed to be done to save some of the plants that were covered with brown spots. Another group was busy retrieving digital photos from solar powered cameras that had previously been left with the farmers with instructions to simply take pictures of their everyday lives. The photos were being collected in the hopes of providing objective evidence of the gains being made over time.
The students were learning to be mindful of their environment, as a major purpose of the plant distribution was to offset carbon emissions, which the industrialized world continues to release in levels that most scientists believe are not sustainable. The plants hopefully will have the added benefit of helping to stabilize the soil leading to less erosion and further degradation of their land.
Finally, on another level the students were discovering what it means to look beyond their own wants and needs and realize that they have the ability and the responsibility to help people who are less fortunate. For a variety of reasons Haiti has become the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. This project offers the hope that within a few years less carbon will enter the atmosphere while simultaneously allowing farmers to harvest and sell their coffee beans and make money that will lift them out of their cycle of poverty and suffering.
What more could we ask for from the youth of today? Under the guidance of an amazing group of Sewanee professors, working for weeks in difficult conditions of heat and humidity (and tarantulas), these students will most assuredly lead the way and become tomorrow’s scientists, photographers, artists, environmentalists and, most importantly, empathetic, humble stewards of the planet.
Yeah, Sewanee’s getting it right.
Allen Pearce, MD February 1, 2015
Dr. Pearce, early morning at Zanmi Lasante, Cange. January, 2015. [photo: Pradip Malde]