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What’s Next for Deaf Haiti?’

July 5, 2010
Arrow Buff

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Gallaudet’s relief and rebuilding efforts for the deaf community in Haiti continued this summer through a new class, “GSR 300: What’s Next for Deaf Haiti?” 

In this intensive three-week course, 10 students sought to understand the status of the deaf community in Haiti and the ways the earthquake impacted deaf and hard of hearing individuals. They also researched relief efforts already in motion, and proposed ways to continue that momentum. In smaller groups, students identified an area in the deaf community that needed improvement–such as education or employment–and developed an action plan to address it.

Before they could form their plans, the students learned about Haiti as a country. Professor Cristina Berdichevsky led the students through careful study of its geography, society, and culture, as well as the factors that contribute to the nation’s high poverty rate and precarious infrastructure.  The students uncovered some of these details through direct contact with the deaf Haitian community.  Sylvie Marc-Charles-Weir, a 2010 graduate of the Master’s of Social Work Program who is herself Haitian-American and helped to found the group Friends of Deaf Haiti, spoke to the students and gave interviews for class projects. Accounts of both life in Haiti and relief efforts for the country’s deaf community came from Juan Reinbold, a cashier in the Finance Office who traveled to the Port-au-Prince area soon after the quake. Eve Mitton, a benefits and records technician in Human Resources Services who grew up in Haiti and attended its first deaf school, also made herself available to share first-hand information. In addition to sharing their experiences and expertise, the three brought Haitian artifacts and samples of Haitian food and drinks to share with the class.

“I learned a lot about Haiti’s history, culture, and deaf community,” said rising junior Jessica Blankenship. “We were fortunate to have three deaf Haitians on campus that really contributed to the course, teaching us about their culture, letting us experience their food, music and art, sharing their experiences growing up in Haiti, and giving us insight on the deaf community and their needs after the earthquake. It brought the global deaf community to my attention and motivated thinking about our deaf brothers and sisters in other countries and how we can help.”

Service-learning

Part of the course addressed immediate needs by preparing donations of clothing and supplies. The class members assisted with organizing and packing items that members of the Gallaudet community had donated during the spring and early summer.  Blankenship’s mother even got involved by coordinating a bulk donation of toothpaste and toothbrushes from her workplace.

Marc-Charles-Weir, Reinbold, and Mitton agreed to bring the donations on their upcoming trips to Haiti. On the advice of Haitian student Yvon Cene, the travelers will transport shoes first.  Thanks to the class effort, it was easy to select the specific kinds of footwear that Cene said were most needed–sandals and tennis shoes–and get them ready for the first trip.

Creating video

Digital media enriched the classroom experience, as students created both written and signed self-evaluations and had the choice of a researched essay or video as a final project. One student chose to write what Dr. Berdichevsky called “a beautiful paper” about the heart-wrenching crime of child slavery in Haiti. The remaining students were eager to try video, although most had little or no experience with the process.

Not possessing much knowledge of the burgeoning media herself, Dr. Berdichevsky called on Tracey Salaway, a faculty fellow in the General Studies program, to give a quick lesson on how to use the application iMovie. Salaway then coached the students as their projects progressed, and in the end four groups of students had each shot, edited, and uploaded a complete film.

The films integrated original footage, video and photography from people on the ground, special effects, captions, and text–in some cases, all in the same piece. Marc-Charles-Weir, Reinbold, and Mitton appear as subjects in the films, adding powerful primary source interviews to the pieces.

The students gave final presentations on June 24 before an audience of fellow class members, instructors, and several VIPs.  The special guests included Dr. Isaac Agboola, dean of the College of Liberal Arts, Sciences, and Technologies; Dr. Marguerite Glass, chair of the Art Department; Katherine Breen, a graduate of the Master’s in International Development Program who served as a volunteer teaching assistant to Berdichevsky; and Mitton.

The guests applauded the students’ efforts to document the reality of life for deaf Haitians and show some of the challenges and opportunities unique to their community. Breen commended the students’ use of multiple media. “You have created wonderful videos,” Glass told the students. “Thank you, thank you,” said Mitton.

Capstone coursessummer and beyond

Like all GSR 300 courses, “What’s Next for Deaf Haiti” is a general studies “capstone” that brings together all five of Gallaudet’s undergraduate student learning outcomes. Students take a GSR 300 course after completing all other general studies requirements. Each class has a culminating project that allows students of all majors to identify and address a specific problem. The next time Berdichevsky offers the class, she plans to take that capstone experience a step further.

In the fall semester, Berdichevsky hopes to build on the ideas that students produced over the summer and present them to key officials. In a few month’s time, she envisions a student-organized summit that brings ambassadors from the Haitian and French embassies, representatives of organizations like the Red Cross, and others to campus to hear student proposals.

-Rhea Yablon Kennedy

5 July 2010

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