Rachel Pierre ’01 is a consultant for the Bangladesh Rehabilitation Assistance Committee (BRAC) USA as a member of the Haiti Response Team and manager of education programs. BRAC seeks to alleviate poverty by empowering people to bring about change in their own lives. Here, she maps out the road from Wheaton to Haiti.
My father migrated from Haiti to the United States in 1964, right at the beginning of Papa Doc. At that time, he was in the middle of his studies in Port-au-Prince. Social conditions were quickly changing. So, he left for Puerto Rico. A year later, he was given U.S. residency and moved to Boston. In 1966, he went back to Haiti and married my mother. Fifteen years later, I was born. Our family lived in Sharon, Mass., Wheaton’s backyard, where I spent my youth.
My junior year in high school, my guidance counselor mentioned Wheaton as a prospective college among many. For me, Wheaton was the best fit. I fell in love with it just for its aesthetics, but I could also see that it was a place where I could spread my wings and take advantage of many opportunities.
I had planned to major in political science. I knew that I wanted to be involved in public service and community development. But I wasn’t clear on exactly how at the time. My friend and classmate Chad Pasha ’01 said he had just completed a great course with Professor of Political Science Darlene Boroviak and suggested that I should take it.
And on another note, like many other first-year students, I had no plans to continue studying a foreign language (French, in my case) beyond the requisite. But Professor of French Jonathan Walsh told me that it was possible to double major, and he encouraged me to do so.
So I graduated with a double major in international relations and French. Both are the foundation for a career in public service and community development that has taken me all the way back to where I, in a sense, began—my father’s native Haiti.
The road was paved at Wheaton.
As a student, I had a chance to intern at the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee. There, I got my first taste of international development work. I had a chance to observe what it took to operate a nonprofit organization, to advocate for marginalized communities and to develop programs that empower the most vulnerable.
Being that I have always lived a double life—an American of Haitian descent—it was always a personal mission to build bridges across communities, promote dialogue, and create an awareness of what was happening around the world, bringing the global community close to home.
Professors Boroviak and Walsh were truly my pillars at Wheaton, providing me the support I needed to successfully complete my studies and to explore my interest outside of coursework. Professor Walsh helped me get my first job after graduation, as an English teacher assistant in Lisieux, France, where I spent two phenomenal years. There are other professors and administrators—John Bezis-Selfa, Dolita Cathcart, Harvey Charles, John Collins, Stephen Mathis and Brenda Wyss, to name a few—who make Wheaton what it is. I graduated with a freight container full of knowledge and tools. Applying it all and putting the pieces together will take a lifetime.
For now, I’m doing that at BRAC USA, an affiliate of the Bangladesh Rehabilitation Assistance Committee, a nongovernmental organization (NGO). The organization started as a small relief operation in Bangladesh to help victims of the political war and cyclone of 1972. It now does development work in 10 countries, including Haiti.
I found my way to the organization during graduate school, while I was an intern at the Clinton Foundation in New York. At the time, former president Bill Clinton was promoting his autobiography, My Life, in Latin America, and I (as an intern) was already scheduled to be in Brazil to attend a human rights course and visit 15 NGOs in Rio de Janeiro. So, I didn’t hesitate to take the opportunity to support his team on the ground while there.
In 2005, the Clinton Foundation launched the first of its many Clinton Global Initiatives (CGI), gathering together world leaders to collaborate on the most pressing matters that affect developing countries. I became a CGI volunteer that year. I played a small role, but I had been wishing that I could somehow do more.
I got the chance after meeting and then keeping in contact with the president and CEO of BRAC USA for five years. She scheduled a meeting between me and the chairman of BRAC. Long story short, here I am today, registering and launching a new NGO (BRAC Haiti); meeting with government officials and locals to assess the existing possibilities and challenges. I’m also surveying the realities of those in rural communities badly hit by the earthquake; raising funds to implement programs; forging official agreements and partnerships; helping to recruit local staff; translating documents; interpreting at meetings; finding a space for the BRAC Limb and Brace Center to provide prosthetic and orthotic services and products for those in need; and much more.
Along the way I am overcoming many challenges. I am thinking and speaking in three languages—English, French and Creole. I’m playing diplomat and learning, as I go, how to handle and manage human/cultural dynamics. My biggest challenge has been coordinating the efforts of individuals, organizations and agencies. Remember the scene from The Matrix where Tank was processing the binary codes to interpret the situation on the ground, while guiding Neo and his team in the matrix? Imagine me doing that for my offices in New York and Bangladesh, while handling tasks in Haiti.
I haven’t really traveled too far from what I learned at Wheaton:
Do what it takes to make things happen. I’m very proud to call myself a social entrepreneur, working both locally and abroad to make a difference in communities and change lives.
My proudest moments will be when I see our first patients get treated by our doctors at the BRAC Limb and Brace Center; teachers participate in training workshops; farmers get land, tools and seeds to plant; and youth dream big and not allow the realities of poverty to assassinate their chance to become who they are meant to be.
I know that not everyone will have a chance to go to a Wheaton, but I plan to take Wheaton wherever I go.