HELP – Funding University Education in Haiti

Posted By: Andrew Downie|Dated: February 21, 2012

Conor Bohan formed lifelong links with Haiti thanks to a girl who was so poor she couldn’t afford to pay for secretarial school.

HELP – Funding University Education in Haiti

Conor Bohan, founder of HELP, the Haitian Education and Leadership Program.

The girl, a former student of Bohan’s at the Port-au-Prince high school where he taught English, asked for a loan so she could continue studying. Bohan said no. He thought she was too smart to just type and asked her what she really wanted to do. When she said she dreamed of being a doctor Bohan offered her a deal. Do well at university, he said, and I’ll keep paying your expenses.

It all boiled down to simple arithmetic, said Bohan, 43. For around $100 he could send a potentially brilliant student to university.

“There is this mass of people who graduate at secondary schools but don’t have the money even to take the bus to university,” Bohan said. “And you can overcome that at the fraction of the cost it would take to educate them at a US university.”

Haiti is the poorest country in the Americas, where 72 % struggle by on $2 a day and where more than one-in-three people cannot read and write. Only around 1 % of those eligible for college make it in, Bohan said. Of those who do, less than half graduate.

Bohan’s eureka moment – the one that led him to create a formal aid network – came when one kid threatened to drop out of college to take a job working in a shop. Bohan and his friend agree to front him the $330 a year he needed, as long as he got good grades. The kid stayed in school and graduated with honours. His first job as an accountant came with a starting salary of $6,000.

“We spent $660 over two years to help him get his degree and after he got it he earned a starting salary of $6,000,” Bohan said.

“So that was the difference between him getting $6,000 or dropping out and earning $100 a month as a clerk in a hardware store. At that moment I realized that this could grow.”

Bohan, now 43, enlisted friends and family and together they started paying to put promising high school students through university. In 2003 he secured institutional funding and created the Haitian Education and Leadership Program, or HELP.

Today, HELP gives scholarships to 125 youngsters from all Haiti’s 10 departments, or states. The scholarships are so popular that HELP recently had to rewrite its rules to allow only straight A students to apply.

The successful students get a scholarship to come to the top universities in Port-au-Prince and are put up in three dorm houses run by US students who work for HELP. There they get English lessons, computer courses and academic advice.

The successful students are responsible for spreading the word in their home towns and last year spoke to around 140,000 people about the scholarships available. There were 330 candidates for just 30 spots.

It costs HELP around $8,500 per student per year and the overall budget has soared to $1 million , much of it coming from foundations run by Mastercard, George Souros, a group of Lutheran churches and the US embassy.

And that girl Bohan helped out all those years ago? She’s now a doctor.

About the Author

Andrew Downie

Andrew Downie fled a factory job in Scotland almost 20 years ago and set off to find adventure in Latin America. Since then he has lived in Mexico, Haiti, and now Brazil, writing and reporting for publications such as The New York Times, Time magazine, Esquire and GQ.  He spent eight years in Rio de Janeiro and currently lives in São Paulo.

The views expressed above are those of the author, and not necessarily representative of the views of the Mahindra Group.

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