Hoisting higher education in Haiti

First came a category 4 hurricane with 145 mph winds. Then, a cholera outbreak. But once things settled down this past summer in Haiti, there actually was cause for celebration: a new university created and led by Jean-Elie Gilles was still standing.

Maybe the little university in southern Haiti is blessed. Last June, Gilles, dressed in his UW purple and gold doctoral robes, greeted the school’s first 71 graduates. It was an opportunity to rejoice in a country still reeling from the effects of a massive earthquake, years of political unrest, overpopulation, and poverty.

One summer morning, Gilles, ’98, ’02, dropped by the Wallingford Center to talk about the new university—Université Publique du Sud-est à Jacmel. The nattily attired Gilles described the exhausting undertaking of founding and governing a new university in a country where higher education is a luxury few can afford.

Gilles was in town to visit with Nancy Nelson and her husband, Iral, who have known and supported Gilles on his life’s unusual path for the last 23 years. They met in Nice, France, where Gilles was studying business and Nancy was studying French. Their acquaintance later saved his life.

When Gilles returned to Haiti, there had been a military coup d’état. The Tonton Macoutes, the paramilitary force that held sway in Haiti way into the 1990s, branded him an intellectual. They wanted to kill him. “My mother was arrested because they couldn’t find me,” says Gilles. He had Nancy’s address in the Tri-Cities and wrote to her seeking help.

The Nelsons secured him a student visa. Gilles relocated to Washington, learned English, earned a bachelor’s degree at WSU, and then came to the UW to earn a doctorate in French Literature. That wasn’t Gilles’ only escape. In 2010, an earthquake reduced his Port-au-Prince apartment building to rubble. But he survived.

“I felt that I was saved to serve. Since the Ministry of Education was looking for help in establishing a public university in Jacmel, I offered to help. But as it turned out, I am leading the institution,” he says. “The UW helped me understand the workings of a successful university, and to develop persistence regarding the implementation of good programs where quality and success are the aims.”

Running the university is a struggle. Some professors haven’t been paid since October 2015, but keep working because they believe in the cause.

When Gilles feels discouraged in his never-ending quest to find scholarships and money for the university, he plays music. “In the morning I put on a fabulous opera to join the chorus of birds and roosters. My neighbors say ‘Oh, my God, thank you.'” ◆

To correspond with Gilles email him at gillesjeanelie@yahoo.com