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UC Davis student's foundation teaches language, brings hope to Haitians

September 4, 2013

Thoughts of "back to school" take Carolina Tavárez to places more than 3,000 miles apart.

The University of California, Davis, graduate remembers the humble Haitian village where just this summer she taught language classes to help eager children reach for a better future.

The 24-year-old looks ahead, too, to graduate studies at UC Davis this fall to help her expand the work of her foundation for multilingual education and someday make education more accessible for all Haitian children.

Tavárez — who as an undergraduate this spring won three major UC Davis awards for accomplishments in academics, undergraduate research and community service — is among students having an impact on the world near and far.

The daughter of Christian missionaries, as a youth she was exposed to some of the poorest areas of her native Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and Haiti. She has returned to the region to make a difference in Anse-à-Pitres in southeast Haiti.

In Haiti, the literacy rate is about 50 percent. Education is underfunded, few families can afford to pay for private schooling and the use of French as the language of instruction creates yet another barrier for the overwhelming majority of children who speak Haitian Creole, a mixture of French and African languages.

"If they have access to education," said Tavárez, who earned a degree in Spanish and education in June, "they will be able to prepare themselves and break the cycle of poverty."

And she is helping make that happen: The foundation that she started less than two years ago is named Ann Prepare Lavni, Haitian Creole for "Let us prepare the future." It offers a free, daylong language school for three weeks in the summer and over the winter holidays; the rest of the year, it partners with another organization to provide after-school lessons.

This summer, on what was her third visit for the foundation, Tavárez took with her five university students: three from universities in Haiti and the Dominican Republic; a fellow UC Davis student; and her brother Jesus, who is studying at Chico State.

They taught classes of about 45 students in English and Spanish — important for its use in border market towns — and led the children in music, sports, and arts and crafts. Children received backpacks, books, school supplies and hygiene items donated through the foundation.

A few of the children walked up to five miles to take classes. "That touched my heart," Tavárez said. And for children with physical challenges, the teachers went to their homes.

Three of Dieula Doiren's 11 children participate in the program. "Especially in Haiti, where education is so expensive and sometimes impossible for people like us, having APL in our town is a dream to many of us," she said in Haitian Creole.

"My prayer is that my children will be able to finish high school and — why not — go to college," said Doiren. "They can think of a better life, better than we can offer."

Tavárez understands. When at age 13, she and her parents immigrated to the United States, she struggled with English. But with hard work, she graduated at age 16 from her Indianapolis high school and went on to earn associate's degrees from Shasta College in Redding, Calif.

Transformation at UC Davis

However, Tavárez didn't have a big dream for what she could do in the world until she transferred to UC Davis to earn a bachelor's degree. Pivotal was her participation in undergraduate research programs — a hallmark of UC Davis as a top research university.

"Being able to have this access to research and all that higher education offers has changed me," she said.

Tavárez was mentored through the McNair Scholars Program, which encourages and helps prepare undergraduates from historically underrepresented groups to pursue doctoral degrees. And small grants from the Provost's Undergraduate Fellowship and the UC Davis Blum Center for Developing Economies helped support the research that gave birth to her foundation.

Tavárez is researching the uses and characteristics of a pidgin language developing in market towns on the borders Haiti and the Dominican Republic. She named it Kreñòl in recognition of how it mixes Spanish and Haitian Creole.

"Doing research taught me that it is never too early or too late to ask questions and seek answers," she said. "I have also learned that it doesn't matter if I am the only person working on this kind of research, because my contribution to my field will make an impact on the lives of many."

Cecilia Colombi, professor and chair of the Department of Spanish and Portuguese, was Tavárez's adviser for her honors thesis. "She gives back a lot to the community. She's very concerned about doing service," Colombi said.

Tavárez was recognized with three UC Davis awards: the Mary Jeanne Gilhooly Award as the top graduating woman, the Chancellor's Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Research, and Outstanding Senior in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese.

This month, she begins a graduate program in Latin American linguistics and literature. She wants to prepare to expand the Anse-à-Pitres model to other Haitian communities and contribute to the reform of Haiti's educational system.

"I'm looking for answers. I won't stop until I change the system," said Tavárez, thinking of her students and their families in Haiti. "I know they're depending on this."

About UC Davis

UC Davis is a global community of individuals united to better humanity and our natural world while seeking solutions to some of our most pressing challenges. Located near the California state capital, UC Davis has more than 34,000 students, and the full-time equivalent of 4,100 faculty and other academics and 17,400 staff. The campus has an annual research budget of over $750 million, a comprehensive health system and about two dozen specialized research centers. The university offers interdisciplinary graduate study and 99 undergraduate majors in four colleges and six professional schools.

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