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After earthquake, Haiti course explores local culture, language

A devastating earthquake has pushed Haiti into national focus, but many students are unfamiliar with the island’s people and culture. Deborah Jenson, a French studies professor, hopes to change this with a new Creole linguistics and culture course titled “Haitian Creole for the Haitian Recovery.”

The new course is listed in the French department. It was organized after the earthquake by several students and faculty who were part of a Creole studies class. Jenson said the class is geared specifically toward cultural sensitization and linguistic preparation for relief efforts.

“I think a lot of people really have no conception of what Haitian culture is like,” Jenson said. “When one simply has background media-based knowledge of Haiti, one tends to only be familiar with labels like ‘the poorest country in the western hemisphere’… but being familiar with the basic history and cultural infrastructure is very important for any relief work.”

Although the course was created late in the registration period and stayed open for only five days, it gathered significant interest not just from undergraduates, but from graduate students and various professionals in the community. The class of 31 includes many students who chose to audit the course at the professor’s invitation due to the unusual enrollment situation.

Laura Wagner, one of the course’s instructors and a graduate student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, was conducting field work in Haiti at the time of the earthquake. Her house collapsed in the disaster and she was injured. She returned to the United States and received treatment at the University of Miami hospital before returning to Chapel Hill.  Although she hopes to return to Haiti, she said she has decided to undertake the instructor role in the meantime to stay involved in relief efforts.

“Learning about Haiti’s culture is really important,” Wagner said. “There are a lot of different organizations in Haiti, but very few of these foreigners actually speak the language or know about the history of the place. The fact that I spoke Creole allowed me to gain trust and work better.”

Although the course will teach all students medical vocabulary and basic Haitian cultural information, Wagner said because students in class have different goals and varying plans, the course will allow them to create personalized projects suited for individual needs and backgrounds.

Senior Christina Booth hopes the class will increase her familiarity with the Creole language. Booth worked in Haiti for a Duke Global Health Institute project last summer and said that through the course, she hopes to get into the practice of speaking the language to be effective in future trips to Haiti.

Another student in the course, Kelly Simpson, a public health professional who worked with Haitian immigrants and recently raised money to support a Haitian orphanage, said the class not only provides cultural and linguistic knowledge, but has also given her resources and opportunities she would not have found elsewhere.

“Already [the class] has been a great opportunity to link into some of the resources in North Carolina’s Haitian community,” Kelly said. “I did not realize that there were so many people involved in the Haitian community here.”

She added that the course allows students to gain a better understanding of Haiti and its culture, instead of viewing it through the limited information available in the media.

“By being in the class it at least begins to introduce the idea that the long standing stereotypes may not fully capture the Haitian culture,” Simpson said. “It is important to develop willingness and awareness that there is much to learn about the Haitian community, that there are some things that we can learn from them and vice versa.”

Jenson said she is working to continue offering the course and added that she sees interest every day in undergraduates who want to be involved and foresee relief work in their future.

“We do want to continue with a full Creole culture and language class so students can become really precisioned in the remarkable culture and literature of Haiti,” Jenson said. “A lot of people are unaware, but most people who have spent time in Haiti are aware that it is a culture with enormous strength and resilience.”

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