UGRAD Alumni at the SIT Graduate Institute

Most people had never heard of SIT Graduate Institute student Joseph Alliance’s hometown until January 12th, 2010, the day Leogane, Haiti, was at the epicenter of a 7.0 magnitude earthquake that devastated the country. Alliance remembers the day well. He was in Florida, relaxing with family after a challenging semester at the University of Mississippi. He was studying at Ole Miss as part of the Global UGRAD, a non-degree scholarship program for promising students, funded by the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs of the U.S. Department of State and administered by World Learning.

“Someone called my aunt’s house and said there had been an earthquake in Haiti. We turned on the TV but it took me almost 10 minutes to realize that this catastrophe had really happened in Haiti,” said Alliance. “It wasn’t easy to understand.” Realizing the severity of the destruction in Haiti, World Learning and the Department of State worked quickly to ensure that Haitian students like Alliance, who were participating in the Global UGRAD Program, could continue their studies at their host universities.

Global UGRAD Alumni at SIT Graduate Institute: Joseph Wendy Alliance, Haiti, Xi Wang, China, and Dian Mayasari, Indonesia

Soon Alliance found himself with a choice. He could return to Haiti to be with friends and family, or stay in the US and finish his degree.

Alliance felt that he could do more to improve the situation in his home country by staying and finishing his degree before returning home. “In the first weeks I wasn’t able to focus but still I had to do my assignments, my papers,” he said. “That was a very painful experience.” In May 2011, he graduated with a major in political science and a minor in history.

When Alliance returned home, he found a country still in ruins from the earthquake, and no employment options in sight. Some reconstruction efforts were in the works, but overall he believed the country lacked leadership. In his hometown of Leogane, many families were beginning to build new homes on some of the richest agricultural land in the region. “Haiti’s basic problem is food right now…but it’s a matter of survival for many people who have nowhere else to live,” Alliance said. “If the government had control they could find a way to reserve agricultural lands for agriculture.”

Though Alliance was unable to secure full-time employment, he was anxious to help. Heart to Heart, an international NGO, was in the process of setting up a medical clinic in Leogane, and Alliance used his hard-earned English language skills as a volunteer translator.  Some months after returning home, Alliance learned that World Learning was offering two full scholarships for staff or alumni within the World Learning network to attend SIT Graduate Institute’s master’s degree program in peacebuilding and conflict transformation.  Alliance jumped at the opportunity and was selected to receive one of the scholarships. He began his program this fall.

Alliance is hoping that his next experience in the US higher education system will be less stressful than the first. After reflecting on the current state of his country for the past year, he hopes to gain knowledge and skills which will help him improve the dialogue and cooperation between the Dominican Republic and Haiti. Now that he has begun his studies, Alliance says he likes the term “peacebuilding” over “conflict transformation.” He believes that working with people in conflict requires the ability to bring the best out of people and their situations rather than focusing on the conflicts that may have separated them in the past.

Ever the optimist, he sees not obstacles to development, but opportunities for change in Haiti. “This work can be about negative experiences or fixing a mess, but really it is just building something good, creating something new.”