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By: Abbey Gandhi, Program management officer, Education and Science, IDRC

In 2021, professor Fania Ogé-Victorin arrived at one of the universités publiques en région in Haiti to teach a human resources management course and noticed a feeling of excitement in the air. She assumed a social event was the cause but quickly realized that the students, about 150 of them, were all clamouring for the chance to see her lecture. Ogé-Victorin recounts her experience through tears, “In Haiti, there are so many young people who are wanting to be trained. They are waiting to learn and there are no professors to teach them. Since that day, I have given myself to teaching those young people. It is my passion.” 

Haiti’s rapid annual population growth rate coupled with significantly higher secondary school participation has resulted in a spike in demand for higher education. According to a report published by UNESCO, the average number of secondary school graduates seeking higher education in Haiti skyrocketed from 5,315 in 1987–1990 to 43,213 in 2011–2017. That’s the good news. The bad news is that Haiti’s higher education system only had room for only about 1.26% of those students.  

In 2013, Haitian academics and diaspora came together to establish the Institut des Sciences, des Technologies et des Études Avancées d’Haiti (ISTEAH) to help address that growing gap. IDRC started supporting the project in 2013 and, by 2021, ISTEAH had become the largest university in the country dedicated to higher education and the training of bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate degrees in fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).  

Despite wanting to pursue graduate studies immediately after her undergraduate degree in Management Sciences in 2008, Ogé-Victorin was unable to do so because of the lack of graduate schools in her region. After ISTEAH’s establishment in 2013, Ogé-Victorin won a full scholarship, funded by IDRC, and was able to complete both her master’s degree (2017) and doctorate (2021) in Education Sciences: Management of Educational Systems (Sciences de l'Éducation : gestion des systèmes éducatifs). 

One of the main draws of ISTEAH is that, in addition to holding in-person classes, all ISTEAH courses are available in an online asynchronous format. In this model, previously recorded lectures are delivered remotely to students who complete course work at their own pace. It means students such as Ogé-Victorin, who lives far from the capital of Port au Prince where most of Haiti’s universities are located, can watch their lectures where and when they choose. This format not only allows students to keep up with jobs and domestic responsibilities at home, it also helps mitigate Internet and electricity accessibility issues in rural communities. Finally, ISTEAH’s teaching model allows for international academics to record lectures remotely for multiple reuses while ISTEAH develops a base of regular local professors. Currently, ISTEAH has six regular full local professors, four of whom, like Ogé-Victorin, are women.  

ISTEAH’s goal is to train 1,000 professionals in science and technology by 2033. To date, 117 students have graduated. This is a high rate for Haitian universities at the graduate level. Most universities only undertake undergraduate training and those that do offer graduate levels have few programs, fewer still in science and engineering. As such, it has been historically challenging for Haitian universities, research centres and private institutions to find and recruit qualified candidates. 

Before attending ISTEAH, Ogé-Victorin was already working as a university professor with only a bachelor’s degree (licence). According to her, this is the norm. She states, “In Haiti, students finish their undergraduate degrees and then are called upon to teach in the same programs because there simply isn’t anyone else more qualified.” As ISTEAH graduates more local professionals qualified to teach in universities and fill high-level executive positions, they are beginning to make a real difference in addressing this gap. ISTEAH’s administration has commemorated the institution’s 10-year anniversary by changing its name to “ISTEAH: L’université de la nouvelle Haiti.”  

Closing the gender gap 

From its inception, ISTEAH has championed the cause of bringing more women into science, as students and as faculty. In June 2021, ISTEAH professor Rose-Michelle Smith became the first UNESCO Chair in Haiti and one of only 15 chairs globally dedicated to research for women and science. As a chemistry professor by training, Dr. Smith is passionate about promoting scientific careers among women and girls. In her words, “If you want to change things; you must do something.”  When Smith was young, she wanted to be an electromechanical engineer. She was told that women did not work in that field, but she still wonders, “What if I had been lucky enough to attend a STEM careers conference and I saw that there were women who were engineers? I might have pursued that passion.” As such, Smith encourages women working in STEM to share their experiences with younger audiences by organizing workshops, conferences and orientation sessions. As UNESCO chair, she organizes the National Science Olympiads for high school students to test their knowledge of mathematics, chemistry, physics, biology and programming.  

Additionally, Smith works with existing female STEM researchers to “elevate their successes, highlight their work and help move them forward in their careers.” For example, the UNESCO Chair has continued developing partnerships with female professors and researchers abroad. This work offers female Haitian researchers more opportunities for academic collaboration and professional mentorship. Smith’s work with existing female STEM researchers is complements ISTEAH’s desire to train 100 women in STEM disciplines in the next five years in the hopes that, as ISTEAH’s president Samuel Pierre puts it, “a critical mass to be reached so that women can truly become drivers of change.”  

For Ogé-Victorin, working as a professor is her contribution to a better future for Haiti. In fact, she considers it a moral obligation to her country to continue to teach in Haiti, which she does remotely while completing a postdoctoral fellowship in Canada. She returns to Haiti regularly to teach in person, lecturing six to seven days a week and teaching up to seven courses over the course of three months. That is why, for Ogé-Victorin, the most important contribution of ISTEAH to Haiti has been the possibility of more qualified local professors. 

ISTEAH was conceived by the Haitians outside and inside the country to address the country’s brain drain, and it continues to harness the energies and talents of the Haitian diaspora and their wide networks. The strength of this collaboration is found in the number of ISTEAH’s international research internships in Canadian universities for master’s and doctoral students which were obtained as part of the Future Leaders of America program. This is the first time that students from Haiti participated in such a program, funded by Global Affairs Canada through the Canadian Bureau for International Education. These internships have proven to be an excellent opportunity for ISTEAH students. Additionally, ISTEAH has partnered with the Institute of Data Valorization to offer scholarships for supervised research internships for graduate and continuing education ISTEAH students at the Université de Montréal, Polytechnique Montréal and HEC Montréal. Ogé-Victorin is currently completing one of these postdoctoral fellowships at Université de Montréal. 

The positive collaboration in the higher education sector in Haiti between ISTEAH and IDRC has helped to improve access, quality and relevance of programs, but there is still much work to be done. For example, ISTEAH’s asynchronous, remote teaching model still requires at least some access to Internet and electricity, and ISTEAH itself has limited access to paywalled scientific literature and peer reviewed journals. Nevertheless, it is impressive how well the new university has done despite ongoing political and economic turmoil in Haiti. In the words of Ogé-Victorin, “organizations like ISTEAH build the capacity of local people so that they can be the ones to do the work of development in their context. When you live in a country, you know its problems intimately. High-quality training, then, allows you to develop the necessary lens to study the issues in your country and propose solutions. I have hope that in 15 or 20 years, there will be more local professors like me who have been well-trained, who invest in research and who can address some of the problems in our country. I couldn’t dream of a better scenario.”   

Top image: IDRC / Shiho Fukada