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An anniversary from 2,000 miles away

One year ago, a massive earthquake west of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, killed 300,000 people, left nearly 810,000 Haitians homeless and shook the lives of countless others. Today, as Haiti’s 10 million survivors take time to remember that fateful day, so too do a small group of people in an office on 21st and Vine Street in Lincoln.

They are employees of the Independent Study High School – for the uninitiated, that’s UNL’s online high school, which offers more than 80 core, elective and Advanced Placement courses for students around the world. Certified teachers and university professors develop curricula that meets state, national and international standards, making it a popular destination for students around the globe seeking to earn their high-school diploma. In the past, celebs like Britney Spears and Bow Wow have gone through the program. But ISHS’s work goes beyond educating celebrities — in fact, over the years they built up quite a relationship with a small school for English-speaking students near Port-au-Prince.

Caroline Villard-Pellisier, the owner and operator of the school, Caroline Villard Tutoring, along with her husband Patrick began working with ISHS several years ago, when they taught only a small handful of students. At the time, the two taught almost all of the school’s courses, but gradually as the school grew they brought on new tutors and began to expand their relationship with UNL’s high-school program. Importantly, ISHS helped provide a structural and instructional backbone from which Caroline could work and find time and space to continue building the school.

Caroline often picked up the phone and dialed her lifeline in Lincoln — ISHS recruiter Charlotte Seewald, who helped get students registered into UNL’s high-school program and walked Caroline and her students through the world of  course materials and logistics.

The two were fast friends. Their phone conferences became at times occasions to catch up on students past and present. The two women began to refer to one another as “cousin.” It was clear that Caroline and Patrick also considered their school an extension of the UNL family — they’d often send photos of smiling students, diplomas in hand, with a large red-and-white “Nebraska” banner behind them. In 2007, they came to Lincoln for a visit, in part to be able to put faces with the voices they’d heard over the phone. By January 2010, the school boasted 35 students, 27 of whom were working their way through the ISHS system on the way toward graduation.

On Jan. 12, while Lincoln was struggling to deal with mountains of snow and bitter cold temperatures, Haiti shook hard. Seewald, upon seeing the devastation on TV, scrambled to try to make e-mail contact with Caroline. Several hours later, she got a brief note back saying everyone was all right — but the future of the school, like much of Haiti, was uncertain.

“We often build up these relationships with our clients, which is why it can be difficult to watch the news and see violence, war, terrorism — and in this case, a natural disaster almost beyond comprehension,” Seewald said. “Caroline asked us only to continue to pray for her, her family and her students — and if possible, to help her students continue their educations.”

Easier said than done. Students were scattering: Many fled to relatives’ homes in safer parts of Haiti, away from the capital. Others landed in the United States, Canada or the nearby Dominican Republic.

Within days, however, each got help from ISHS, Seewald said. In some cases, that meant working with a student’s new school to provide transcripts so they could matriculate into the educational systems of their new homes. In others, it meant speeding along new books and school supplies to replace those lost in the quake. Still others needed extensions on their coursework deadlines – something the ISHS quickly granted.

“Perhaps in some small way we were able to restore a slice of normal life to them,” Seewald said. “Even if we couldn’t put their lives back together, we could give them something familiar, and in at least some ways, that helps.”

This fall, Caroline and Patrick’s school re-opened with fewer than ten students, a few of whom are using UNL’s ISHS program. Caroline told me at the time that it felt like those early days when the school first began, when she taught and tutored in nearly every subject — English, math, science — but she and Patrick hope to build the school back to where it once was.

She said she knew that ISHS would do what it could to help in that goal – and that through such a devastating natural disaster, bonds and friendships with her Nebraska “cousins” endure and give promise to her work.

“Nebraska has been wonderful to us,” she said. “No matter where our story leads us, we know that we’ll always have a partner in Lincoln.”

More on UNL’s Independent Study High School can be found here.

Patrick (left) and Caroline Villard-Pellisier

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