Graduating Senior Triumphed Over Adversity as an Orphan in Haiti To Achieve His Dream of Becoming a Teacher
April 27, 2023
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
More Spring 2023 Graduate Stories:
For Nikaiya Lawson, an Art and Design student graduating from UNC this spring, art is a safe place. After a suicide attempt at age 14, it has been the space where she finds meaning and can freely express her identity without limits.
Education major Dakota Baer's goal was to graduate with no student loan debt. She was on track to meet this goal until her last semester when she had to student teach full-time without being paid.
After experiencing hardship in high school, multiple professors helped Business major Dante Cesare fall in love with education again.
Jerry Guzman, a Sociology major, was raised by non-native English speaking parents who did not attend college. They emphasized the significance of education and hard work in the classroom, which has influenced Guzman’s values today.
First-generation Nursing major Rosemary Gonzalez knew attending college without her parents fully understanding all the steps it takes to get there would create some obstacles and adversities. Facing those is when she realized that for her to be successful in higher education, she needed to find a new support system.