To Ornessa Hyppolite, it felt like the end of the world.
The Community College of Rhode Island student was with her mother, visiting family in their native Port-au-Prince, Haiti, when the country was hit by a devastating earthquake in January 2010.
Hyppolite, 26, of Woonsocket, was stranded in Haiti for a month. She and her mother have lived in the United States since 2005 but have only residency and not citizenship yet, meaning that the U.S. government evacuated many others before them. While they waited, mother and daughter were firsthand witnesses to one of the worst catastrophes of the 21st century.
“It was hard for me and my mother. We stayed without food for a couple of days and slept on the streets, something I’ve never done in my life,” Hyppolite said. “It touched me a lot. I see life very differently now.”
Fortunately, all of Hyppolite’s family survived, but they remain homeless today. “It’s a blessing that my family is still alive even though they lost their homes,” Hyppolite said.
She said her experiences in Haiti have changed how she sees the world. “You have to do everything you can because you never know when you are going,” she said.
When she returned to the United States, Hyppolite did her best to put these experiences behind her. “Even though sometimes I feel down, I’m still doing great and moving forward,” she said. “I thank God for that.”
By the time Hyppolite returned to CCRI, she had missed half of the spring semester and had to work extra hard to graduate on time. She credits her professors and counselors, particularly Monica Lee, an Access program coordinator, with helping her stay on track.
“The school really understood my situation and what I had been through,” she said. “My counselors helped me from beginning to end.”
Hyppolite’s educational journey has been challenging. She was a college student in Haiti when her father had to flee the country for political reasons, seeking asylum in America. Hyppolite and her mother followed in 2005, leaving behind a brother and sister. She did not speak any English, but it is now her third language, including Creole and French.
“When I first came and people said ‘hi’ to me, I didn’t know what to say back,” Hyppolite said.
She took English lessons with Project RIRAL, which stands for Rhode Island Regional Adult Learning, in Woonsocket and enrolled at CCRI a year later at her aunt’s suggestion.
Hyppolite was eager to continue her education, but taking college-level courses as a new English speaker proved to be a challenge. “It’s hard even now; I’m still struggling with things,” Hyppolite said. “You’re not going to know everything in five years.”
She said the Access program – a federally funded TRIO support program for students whose parents never completed a bachelor’s degree, meet federal low-income requirements and/or have a documented disability – was a great help.
“Being a student at Access is a good initiation,” Hyppolite said. “It really helps you. Those people are always there to push you forward and tell you that you can do it.”
Hyppolite graduated on May 21 with a degree in General Studies and will attend Rhode Island College this fall. She is interested in the medical field, possibly nursing, but has not settled on a discipline yet, knowing only that she wants to help people.
“With my country’s situation, if I go back I will be able to help them. We need a lot of doctors now,” she said.