Clemson University Feature Stories

Trina Zeiler, far right, and her sister Kristen Zeiler, first row far left, with students and teachers from Louverture Cleary School in Haiti.

More than words on a page

From Clemson World Magazine

When students and faculty collaborate, sometimes it’s like the chicken and the egg; it’s hard to know where the best ideas first come from. But the results are what set apart the Clemson experience.

For example, Katrina “Trina” Zeiler, a 2011 communication studies graduate, wanted to culminate her senior year with an independent project that would bring together her studies, personal interests and something near to her heart. She collaborated with communication studies faculty Cheryl Lossie. And somewhere along the way came the idea for Zeiler to travel to Haiti during spring break and volunteer with The Haitian Project at their Louverture Cleary School alongside her sister Kristen, a 2009 Clemson elementary education graduate. Of course, making it happen took a bit more work.

Both the faculty member (Lossie) and student (Zeiler) briefly describe the experience from their own points of view.

Cheryl Lossie — the academic process

An independent study allows a student to explore “special interests or projects in communication studies outside the scope of existing courses.” Trina, a student I’d had in my communication and conflict management class, approached me about an independent study. She wanted to finish her senior year by digging into something that was personally meaningful to her and bring the concepts of communication studies to life.

We spent several months, even prior to the semester, determining what the learning experience and application might look like. We decided she would explore the various aspects of the Haitian culture through the eyes of communication studies, with the focus on the children and their culture, particularly at Louverture Cleary School, where her sister Kristen was teaching as a volunteer.

Trina actually hit the ground running with the academic side of the project the first week of the semester. We became aware of a funding opportunity to help support her travel and her service work while she was there during spring break. She quickly learned how to write a funding proposal and the various aspects of organizational communication involved in such an endeavor. Of course, when her request was not funded, she learned that not all funding proposals are, which means finding other sources to support our projects. While planning for the trip, she saw the various facets of intercultural communication, along with a wider range of organizational communication.

While in Haiti she had an opportunity to interview those responsible for the school, which gave her firsthand insight into leadership communication. And, from her story, you can see that she learned about family communication, especially through the eyes of another culture. Finally, while Trina wrote about her experience for this story, she gained a new respect for and awareness of public relations.

One of the things I have always loved about my field of study is the meaning and the root of the word “communication.” It is taken from the Latin “communicare,” which means “to make common to many.” Stanley Deetz, a well-known scholar in communication studies, made an important point about that when he said: “The notion of communication as ‘to make common’ has all too often been used as to make alike, rather than to understand the productivity of mutually holding our differences in relation to each other.”

And, the one definition I have always appreciated the most is one taken from an old dictionary my mom gave me years ago, which defines communication as “forming connecting passages.”

I believe that is the most important aspect of Trina’s independent study. She wanted to know how the learning experience might change her and reshape her worldview.  She wanted to know how the pictures and words in a text stood next to the real world they described. By creating those connections — forming the connecting passages and holding the differences she experienced — with faculty here at Clemson, in her readings about Haiti, in all of the details involved in organizing such a trip, her conversations with the school leaders and volunteers, her interactions with the children, she came to see the simple gifts of the presence of a child and the presence of those who choose to make service their life.

Trina Zeiler and a student from the Louverture Cleary School in Haiti.Trina’s story — the experience

It’s one thing to see a picture of a hungry child — hungry for food, education, a better way of life — in an appeal for help. But it’s quite another to see the children face-to-face and to witness their lives.

My sister Kristen Zeiler experiences this firsthand while volunteering with The Haitian Project at their secondary boarding school, Louverture Cleary School (LCS).

Kristen volunteers in Croix de Bouquet, outside of Port-au-Prince, as a teacher. She uses her elementary education training from Clemson as well as her own passion for continual innovation in student learning. She primarily works with the Timoun Program (“timoun” is Kreyol for “children”), a daylong child development program for children ages 3 and up from the school’s local neighborhood. It’s one response to the devastating earthquake of 2010 when so many parents were giving over their children to the elements or to orphanages because, sadly, they felt unable to care for them in the midst of the turmoil.

The Haitian Project, which supports and operates LCS, is a Catholic mission providing tuition-free education, room and board for 350 qualified and disadvantaged students of Haiti who are dedicated to giving back to their country. The inspiration for the Timoun Program sprang from the school’s emphasis on community and service, a reflection of their motto, “What you receive as a gift you must give as [a] gift.” In this spirit, the LCS students volunteer regularly with the Timoun.

I was first captivated by the stories my sister shared of LCS before the earthquake and the ripples of positive influence the school was having in the country. That semester before the devastation, Kristen had begun teaching English to seventh- and eighth-graders. Versed in four languages (French, Kreyol, English and Spanish), most of the high school graduates go on to pursue college then professional jobs in Haiti. They pledge to use their education as a way to help rebuild their country. Most recently, the Timoun children have also benefited from the volunteer service of the older, educated counterparts of the high school. It’s an enterprise that works to build lives and futures.

After months of planning my independent study with communication studies professor Cheryl Lossie, I left for Haiti during Clemson’s spring break and arrived in a world apart from my own. Outside the airport in Port-Au-Prince there was true poverty. Garbage littered the streets. Homes were made out of nothing more than sheet metal, tarps and wire. There was little clean water, substandard food, and little of any of the modern conveniences I was so accustomed to in the States.

When I arrived at the school, however, I found an amazing opportunity to witness the academy of bright, albeit underprivileged Haitian students, all ready and eager to learn. Louverture Cleary School is situated on a two-acre campus in the neighborhood of Santo 5, a 20-minute drive from downtown Port-Au-Prince.

LCS is an educational haven for the 10- to 21-year-old boarding school students. I began to understand what Kristen meant by open-air classrooms, the mango tree canopy of the campus, the worn bench in the Palais (the school’s administration building) where many a tired volunteer found rest. I finally met the enthusiastic students, and saw for myself the adorable Timoun children from the neighborhood standing proudly in front as the older LCS students held their morning assembly.

I learned and then taught the children a song in their native Kreyol. We created name bracelets and crafted musical instruments. And during quiet time, I held them and they melted in my arms. Seeing the children smile and celebrate my simple presence combined for an experience that has changed my life.

The Timoun Program originally began as a way to provide needed support in caring for children in the LCS neighborhood. Christina Moynihan — with her husband, Patrick, and children — has committed the past 15 years to life with The Haitian Project and has continuously maintained communication between herself and the surrounding neighborhood outside the walls of LCS.

Families and working Haitians occupy the streets oftentimes as vendors of fritai (fried foods), sugar cane and bottled soda — the Haitian equivalent of a fast food market. Children occupy the streets often unsupervised. Moynihan would invite the children in this neighborhood to eat and play in the confines of LCS in the afternoons. Because public education is not free in Haiti, this was the only opportunity for these children to use a formal playground. As word has spread and as the program has evolved, the tiny group of Timoun children, aged 2 through 13, has grown to 60, a testament to the need of this development center.

I was once told that a single day at Louverture Cleary can change any visitor for the better, and my visit over this past spring break affirmed that.

Under the guidance and support of Dr. Lossie and the communication studies department, my journey through this experience culminating my four years of college has changed my worldview. My gratitude also goes to the generous invitation of The Haitian Project that made the trip to Louverture Cleary School possible.


For more on The Haitian Project, go to haitianproject.org.


Visit Clemson World Magazine online at clemson.edu/clemsonworld.


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