Philosophy Students Use Their Education to Create Opportunities for Children in Haiti

Professor Vincent Rama (standing, second from right) and some
of his students during an "awareness event" on campus.

Every week, students enrolled in Vincent Rama’s “Ethics and Community Engagement” course take turns presenting international news events that impact human and environmental rights and values. After outlining the facts, presenters pose questions to their classmates, and together, they apply ethical theory to the real-world issues in order to determine the operating moral principles.

“Do you think as a planet we will eventually be able to work together to get the greenhouse gasses under control,” Rob Civil ‘18 asked his classmates after presenting a news article about the International Panel on Climate Change. Most respondents, citing personal encounters with friends and family who do not believe in global warming, were not optimistic. “It shouldn’t be up to a handful of scientists to come up with a solution,” Civil countered. “We need to spread awareness, be kind to others with a differing opinion, show them the facts.”

Other topics discussed in Science Hall East that evening included mechanical deforestation, clothing factories dumping dye into Bangladeshi waterways, the relationship between college campuses and fossil fuels, and whether a forthcoming “awareness event” in the WP Student Center would benefit from the addition of Haitian music. That awareness event speaks to a key part of the course: it provides a forum for students to engage critical ethical issues in the world, both theoretically and practically, Rama says.

Over the past eight semesters, students taking Ethics and Community Engagement have generated plenty of campus awareness of and more than $9,000 for Haiti’s l’Ecole de Choix, an institution that serves almost 300 students through its elementary program and after-school program for graduates.

With that money, Rama’s students have provided more than 20 annual health and wellness student sponsorships at the school – covering access to the school nurse, who is doctor to most of the students, and a daily meal and snack.

“The commitment of these William Paterson students is so important because it demonstrates a long-term partnership with a university – the type of institution which some of our students certainly aspire someday to attend,” says Laura Pincus Hartman, executive director of l’Ecole de Choix. The WP students, she adds, serve as inspiration for her students, setting “a positive example of initiative and diligence.”

This past semester, Rama’s students organized two awareness events at WP for l’Ecole de Choix; they solicited small donations, and sold snacks and merchandise to raise money, including wristbands and t-shirts emblazoned with the institution’s name. All told, they collected $1,100. The exercise of working on a real-world ethical project, Rama says, provides his class with first-hand experience in identifying and taking action on a situation in which human beings are overlooked or neglected.

“Working to support l'Ecole de Choix taught me how important education is for a developing country and how thankful the students, parents and teachers are for this opportunity,” says Nicole Rivadeneira ‘18, a student in Rama’s class this past fall who hails from a developing country herself. Learning about how education was helping Haitian students – “children who deserve a better future” – to improve their quality of life was especially rewarding, she says.

“People have asked if I’ll ever switch up my students’ common cause, and if I reached the point that I thought they weren’t interested or didn’t relate to l’Ecole de Choix, I would. But, it’s the other extreme,” Rama says. “My students absolutely love supporting this school; they really, really get into it.”

Rama, too, has gotten into it. In 2015, after six semesters of organizing support for l’Ecole de Choix, its administration asked him to join the organization’s board of directors – an invitation the professor happily accepted. Outside of William Paterson, Rama hosts two annual fundraising dinners to benefit the school, at a local Haitian restaurant. Combined, the dinners fund three years’ worth of tuition and wellness bills for two sponsored Haitian students.

“My biggest takeaway from this course is that civic engagement and giving back is important. Making a difference – even if it is to a small number of people – can be life changing,” says Alicia Roberts ‘18, who took Rama’s class last semester. “Helping to sponsor three students with the money we raised for l’Ecole de Choix doesn't change the world on a mass scale, but to those students, it means a lot and changes their lives. I'm really proud of what my classmates and I did under the wonderful guidance of Professor Rama.”