Syracuse University Magazine


SU students Brian Michaud (standing), Caleb Brewer '13 (left) and Stephann Dubois '14 (second from left) work with Haitian students as part of an initiative to install wireless networks at several State University in Haiti campuses.  

Networking in Haiti

In January 2010, Stephann DuBois thought the world was ending. He felt the classroom shake. "I waited for death to take me," says Dubois, who was in his home country of Haiti at the time. When he realized it was an earthquake, he jumped out of a second-story window. "My will to live kept my legs from breaking," says Dubois, now a sophomore in the L.C. Smith College of Engineering and Computer Science. During the next several hours, he walked 30 miles to his house because traffic had made it impossible to drive.

Although the widespread destruction led Dubois to attend Syracuse University instead of a Haitian university, he always planned to use what he learned at SU to help Haiti. For one week this summer, he did just that. As part of a group of Syracuse University faculty, staff, and students, he visited Port-au-Prince to install wireless networks in three of the 11 campuses of the State University in Haiti (UEH). "It marked the beginning of my footsteps toward my goal to use this education—to exploit my knowledge—to help my country going forward," Dubois says.

SU's Information Technology and Services (ITS) department helped coordinate and carry out the project after the University's Haiti Support Committee proposed it. The support committee, a faculty group formed last spring, also developed an exchange program for UEH students to earn graduate degrees in accounting, engineering, and information technology at Syracuse. Work for the wireless project began in May, when faculty and staff traveled to Haiti to gather information and develop a plan in collaboration with UEH. A group of 11 people then set up the wireless networks this summer. ITS is continuing discussions with UEH to explore further opportunities for collaboration.

With Internet access, UEH can leverage what little it has, according to Achille Messac, Distinguished Professor and chair of mechanical and aerospace engineering at L.C. Smith College. Messac, who grew up in Haiti, worked to install the networks this summer and has been involved with the exchange program. He says students can now access current academic information, international news, and distance-learning opportunities through the web. "So much of what makes a university a university is driven by technology," says Lee Badman, an information technology analyst, who went to Haiti with ITS in the spring and summer.

The Syracuse team enjoyed Haiti's natural beauty and culture, but also felt overwhelmed by the earthquake damage. One site was particularly emblematic of Haiti's condition for Messac, who had not been to his native country in almost four decades. The landscape had changed, with about 20 one-room shacks now occupying the site of his two-story childhood home.

The team faced many challenges during its stay. Equipment—donated by Syracuse University and the wireless technology company Bluesocket—was held in customs, and tropical storm Emily forced students to stay at their hotel for one day. The group made up for lost time, putting in 14 hours on its last day. The marathon final day of installing cables—using everything from hammer drills to shovels—left the team sweaty, tired, and covered in dirt and concrete dust. But the demanding work was worth it.

The reactions of Haitian faculty, staff, and students justified the long hours. In particular, Dubois remembers a student who approached the team with a big smile and said he couldn't wait to learn information about his field unavailable in his textbooks. "The Internet—it's the opportunity to develop this passion they have," Dubois says. —Sarah Jane Capper