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Graduating Senior Triumphed Over Adversity as an Orphan in Haiti To Achieve His Dream of Becoming a Teacher

J.P. Gaspard

April 27, 2023

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As a first-generation, multilingual, graduating senior from Haiti, J.P. Gaspard’s accomplishment of earning his Bachelor of Arts in Elementary Education is no small feat – and he has no plans to take a break from overcoming obstacles now.  

Jean Junior P. (J.P.) Gaspard, is the third of eight children who were born and raised in Haiti. He was only 7 years old when he started working, picking up numerous jobs to help support his mother and siblings after his father died. As a result, Gaspard didn’t start school until he was 11 years old when his mother sent him to an orphanage so that he could receive an education, which people have to pay for in Haiti.  

That’s when Gaspard first discovered his calling to teach when he helped the younger kids in the orphanage learn. He taught himself basic English by reading children’s books that missionaries who visited would bring.This reinforced his desire to teach elementary education as the children’s books were fun to read as well as instructional and educational. He imagined one day he would teach them to his own students. 

In 2011 he met an American woman, Beth Anne Hovel Valcourt, a ‘02 UNC alumnus, who would become his champion and supporter, when she visited his orphanage. She is the founder of YES! (Youth Empowered by the Spirit). The organization was founded to “empower young adults by providing for their individual needs as they transition out of the Haitian orphanage system and take on a meaningful role in their community.”  

“My American mother [Beth] has helped and supported me throughout the process and I consider her my mom. We are hoping to start the adoption process when I obtain my green card,” he said.  

While they struggled to get a visitor visa that would allow him to move to the United States, Gaspard interviewed at the U.S. Embassy in Haiti where was granted a student visa. He started his senior year of high school at Front Range Baptist Academy in Ft. Collins, Colorado, and in 2018, he enrolled in Northeastern Junior College in Sterling, Colorado.  

After two years at NJC Gaspard earned his associate degree and then transferred to UNC to earn his bachelor's degree in education. He transferred to UNC in 2020 during COVID-19, and at first struggled to meet people since he was taking his courses online. A highly social person, Gaspard missed the in-person interactions so when restrictions lifted, he joined the soccer and tennis clubs, the Christian Challenge organization and other clubs. He wasn’t shy about staying after class to talk with his professors, especially to pursue extra credit assignments to bring any B grades up to A’s. His schooling was funded by Valcourt, the YES! organization, as well as many scholarships at UNC, such as the Presidential Transfer Scholarship, the UNC Legacy Scholarship and the Allen and Lily Huang Scholarship. 

“I had a great experience at UNC,” Valcourt said. “And when we started to look at universities for J.P. to attend, I really felt like UNC would be a good school for him. UNC is smaller but the staff and education is amazing. UNC was a great fit for him for that very same reason. Once a bear, always a bear!” 

Gaspard developed a small, tightknit community at NJC, which included other international students who were also on student visas. There were only six of them, all living away from home, all missing important things from their past, such as speaking their native language, which, for Gaspard is Creole. However, the time-consuming and sometimes grueling process proved to be too much for his peers; Gaspard was the only one of out of the six who continued his education in America. 

While he found the UNC campus large and overwhelming at first, Gaspard also found everyone friendly and welcoming, including the faculty. 

“[The faculty] have been a big part of my journey,” Gaspard said. “They really know what they’re talking about, and I appreciate their help and support.” 

“J.P. will be an asset to any school district he works for because of his fluency in three languages, passion for learning and a first-person perspective of diversity among schools.  His tenacity throughout his life gives him the strength to be a powerful mentor to all he teaches. He has a remarkable future ahead,” said Kimberly Mahovsky, Ed.D., assistant professor, Early Childhood and Elementary Mathematics. 

Though he hasn’t been back to his home country since he left more than five years ago, Gaspard thinks about his family often. He said the crime in Haiti, particularly with gangs in Port-au-Prince, worries him. He also can’t freely travel internationally currently. He has been spending his last semester at UNC student-teaching first grade at Bromwell Elementary School in Denver. He greatly enjoys teaching and hopes to get a job teaching elementary school in Colorado for several years with the goal of going back to Haiti to establish a free school.  

But Gaspard still has some obstacles to overcome, including getting a U.S. work visa and, eventually his green card. None of these challenges has slowed him down, however, nor dampened his enthusiasm about his future.  

“I wake up and feel grateful every day,” Gaspard said. “But I have so much more to do.” 

– written by Christina Abel

De huérfano a maestro, J.P. Gaspard  

Un estudiante de último curso triunfó sobre la adversidad siendo huérfano en Haití para lograr su sueño de convertirse en profesor. 

El logro de J.P. Gaspard, haitiano de primera generación, multilingüe y licenciado en Educación Primaria, no es poca cosa, y ahora no piensa tomarse un respiro para superar los obstáculos. 

Jean Junior P. (J.P.) Gaspard es el tercero de ocho hermanos nacidos y criados en Haití. Cuando sólo tenía 7 años tuvo que empezar a trabajar, aceptando numerosos trabajos para ayudar a mantener a su madre y hermanos tras la muerte de su papá. Como consecuencia, Gaspard no empezó a ir a la escuela sino hasta los 11 años, cuando su madre lo envió a un orfanato para que pudiera recibir una educación, que en Haití hay que pagar.   

Fue entonces cuando Gaspard descubrió por primera vez su vocación de enseñar, justo cuando tuvo que ayudar a los niños más pequeños del orfanato a aprender. Aprendió inglés básico leyendo los libros infantiles que traían los misioneros de visita, lo que reforzó su deseo de enseñar educación primaria, ya que los libros infantiles eran divertidos de leer, además de instructivos y educativos. Imaginaba que algún día se los enseñaría a sus propios alumnos. 

En 2011 conoció a Beth Anne Hovel Valcourt, ex alumna de la UNC en 2002, que se convertiría en su defensora y partidaria, cuando visitó su orfanato. Es la fundadora de YES (Youth Empowered by the Spirit). La organización se fundó para "empoderar a los jóvenes adultos atendiendo a sus necesidades individuales en su transición fuera del sistema de orfanatos haitianos y asumir un papel significativo en su comunidad."   

"Mi madre estadounidense [Beth] me ha ayudado y apoyado durante todo el proceso e incluso  la considero mi madre. Esperamos iniciar el proceso de adopción cuando obtenga mi tarjeta verde", dijo.   

Mientras luchaban por conseguir un visado de visitante que le permitiera trasladarse a Estados Unidos, Gaspard se entrevistó en la embajada estadounidense en Haití, donde le concedieron un visado de estudiante. Comenzó su último año de escuela secundaria en Front Range Baptist Academy en Ft. Collins, Colorado, y en 2018, se inscribió en Northeastern Junior College en Sterling, Colorado. 

Después de dos años en NJC Gaspard obtuvo su grado asociado y luego se transfirió a UNC para obtener su licenciatura en educación. Se trasladó a la UNC en 2020 durante COVID-19, y al principio tuvo dificultades para conocer gente, ya que estaba tomando sus cursos en línea. Gaspard, quien es una persona muy sociable, extrañaba las interacciones en persona, así que cuando se levantaron las restricciones, se unió a los clubes de fútbol y tenis, a la organización Christian Challenge y a otros clubes. No le daba vergüenza quedarse después de clase para hablar con sus profesores, sobre todo para pedir créditos extra que le permitieran subir sus notas de notable a sobresaliente. Sus estudios fueron financiados por Valcourt, la organización YES! y muchas becas de la UNC, como la Presidential Transfer Scholarship, la UNC Legacy Scholarship y la Allen and Lily Huang Scholarship.  

"Tuve una gran experiencia en la UNC", dice Valcourt. "Y cuando empezamos a buscar universidades para que J.P. asistiera, realmente sentí que UNC sería una buena escuela para él. La UNC es más pequeña, pero el personal y la educación son increíbles. UNC era una gran opción para él por esa misma razón". 

Gaspard creó una pequeña comunidad muy unida en el NJC, que incluía a otros estudiantes internacionales que también tenían visados de estudiante. Eran sólo seis, todos vivían lejos de casa, todos echaban de menos cosas importantes de su pasado, como hablar su lengua materna, que para Gaspard es el criollo. Sin embargo, el largo y a veces agotador proceso resultó ser demasiado para sus compañeros; Gaspard fue el único de los seis que continuó su educación en Estados Unidos.  

Aunque al principio el campus de la UNC le pareció grande y abrumador, Gaspard también encontró a todo el mundo amable y acogedor, incluido el personal académico.  

"El profesorado ha sido una parte importante de mi viaje", dice Gaspard. "Realmente saben de lo que hablan, y agradezco su ayuda y apoyo". 

"J.P. será un activo para cualquier distrito escolar en el que trabaje por su dominio de tres idiomas, su pasión por el aprendizaje y su perspectiva en primera persona de la diversidad entre las escuelas.  Su tenacidad a lo largo de su vida le da la fuerza para ser un poderoso mentor de todos los que enseña. Le espera un futuro extraordinario", afirma Kimberly Mahovsky, Doctora en Educación y profesora adjunta de Matemáticas para la Primera Infancia y Primaria.  

Aunque no ha vuelto a su país natal desde que se marchó hace más de cinco años, Gaspard piensa a menudo en su familia. Dice que la delincuencia en Haití, sobre todo con las bandas de Puerto Príncipe, le preocupa. Además, actualmente no puede viajar libremente al extranjero. Ha pasado su último semestre en la UNC como estudiante-docente de primer grado en la escuela primaria Bromwell de Denver. Disfruta mucho enseñando y espera conseguir un trabajo como profesor de primaria en Colorado durante varios años con el objetivo de volver a Haití para establecer una escuela gratuita.   

Pero Gaspard aún tiene que superar algunos obstáculos, como conseguir un visado de trabajo estadounidense y, finalmente, su residencia. Sin embargo, ninguno de estos retos le ha frenado ni ha mermado su entusiasmo por su futuro.   

"Me levanto y me siento agradecido todos los días", dice Gaspard. "Pero me queda mucho por hacer". 

 –escrito por Cristina Abel, traducido por Carlos José Pérez Sámano 

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