Haitian-born international student pursuing career as civil engineer
Jean Donald Charles, 26, survived the 2010 Haiti earthquake, a catastrophic magnitude 7.0 event that killed an estimated 230,000 people and caused roughly $14 billion in property damage. The experience changed Donald’s outlook on life and strengthened his desire to become a civil engineer with a focus on bridge design.
“I’ve always been fascinated by what it takes to build a bridge,” he said, noting he is looking forward to studying the complex mechanics required for solving engineering problems specific to bridges.
Originally from Port-au-Prince, the capital of Haiti and the Caribbean island nation’s most populous city with more than 2.6 million metropolitan residents, Donald graduated from Lycée Benoît Batraville, a high school in Pétion-ville, a Port-au-Prince suburb. He grew up poor and took on important responsibilities at an early age—he was 14 when he was placed in charge of caring for his siblings. Finding ways to survive day to day was a difficult, ongoing challenge.
Three words that describe you as a college student:
Friendly. Outgoing. Tenacious.
“I learned English at a missionary school in Haiti,” said Donald, who is also fluent in French and Haitian Creole, the latter language spoken by his parents. “I think in English now, but Creole is still my favorite language.”
As time passed, Donald became more involved with missionary work. He served as a translator at the mission and in 2009 met Lance Ware, a nondenominational missionary who became his sponsor. In 2015, five years after the earthquake, Donald met Steve and Ann Jacobs, missionaries from Minnesota. The couple took on a pivotal sponsorship role in Donald’s life.
“Steve has become a father figure to me,” Donald said. “He and his wife, Ann, both went to Inver Hills Community College. They gave me the opportunity to come to Minnesota and start my own college career at Inver.”
Donald is a first-generation college student. He is earning an Associate of Arts (A.A.) at Inver Hills. He is on schedule to graduate spring 2018 and has plans to transfer to the University of Minnesota or the University of North Dakota to earn a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering.
“My goal is to launch my civil engineering career in the United States and then return to Haiti once I have enough experience,” Donald said. “I want to serve as a bridge between the U.S. and my homeland.”
Meanwhile at Inver Hills, Donald stays engaged as a student. He belongs to the Black Student Union and International Student Club, and will soon be joining Math Club. He also enjoys intramural soccer and works as a student cashier at the Fresh Stop Café on campus.
Donald resides in Lakeland, Minnesota, with his sponsors, Steve Jacobs and his wife, Ann. His mom and dad live in Haiti. He has one brother, Aldo, 14, and four sisters, Michaelle, 24, Crystal, 6, Whitney, 6, and Gaelle, 4.
Donald in Haiti gallery
Douglas Differt Difference Makers (D3M) Endowed Scholarship
Donald is the first student to receive the Douglas Differt Difference Makers (D3M) Endowed Scholarship. He was awarded $1,500 at the start of fall semester 2016 and the money has made a huge difference.
“The scholarship has helped out a lot,” Donald said. “My sponsor has been covering my college expenses out of pocket. I’m glad that I am able to contribute through my scholarship dollars. The scholarship makes me feel like I’m pulling my weight.”
Gail Morrison, executive director of the Inver Hills Foundation, reported that the endowed scholarship has made strong progress over the past few months. “The endowment will have $547,000 once all pledges and matches are paid,” Gail said. “That sum is enough to auto-fund ten scholarships, five for Inver and five for DCTC, in perpetuity.”
To learn more about the D3M Endowed Scholarship, read “D3M: Bringing Vision and Goals Together” and “Douglas H. Differt Math Center” on Inver Hills News.
2010 Haiti earthquake
Magnitude 7.0 earthquakes are described as “major” catastrophes on the Richter scale, one step below “great,” the highest magnitude description. A 7.0 earthquake delivers 10 times the shaking amplitude of a 6.0 quake. Haiti suffered an 8.1 quake in 1842 near the city of Cap-Haïtien on the country’s north coast. Fifty-three hundred people lost their lives during the quake and subsequent tsunami.
With its epicenter only 16 miles from Port-au-Prince, the 2010 earthquake destroyed or severely damaged 250,000 residences, 30,000 commercial buildings, 1,300 schools and 50 health care facilities. Jean Donald Charles was 20 when the quake hit. His experiences during and after the disaster have made him a stronger and more compassionate person.
Where were you when the earthquake hit?
I was inside my home in Pétion-ville. I had no idea what was happening. My generation in Haiti has no experience with earthquakes. I had just got home from school and was beginning to study when I heard a tremendously loud sound, like pots and pans banging, and then the house began to shake.
I had a hard time getting out of the house—the door was moving and it was difficult to walk. I was scared, but I managed to escape and get outside to a nearby basketball court. After a few minutes, a large crowd had gathered at the court. People were confused, surprised and crying, but luckily no one in my neighborhood was injured. I lived with my sponsor in a more affluent area and the construction was better. That saved a lot of people.
What did you do during the aftermath?
We went up on a hill to get a view of Port-au-Prince. All we could see was smoke and we knew something horrible had happened. All the phone lines were cut. We had no way to communicate; the situation was chaotic. We knew people were buried under concrete. It was hard, the saddest day of my life.
The aftermath of the earthquake was like the end of the world. We had no food, no water, no transportation, no school. I looked for my father for three days. He worked in Port-au-Prince. He survived, but we didn’t find each other until later on. My mother also survived. During my search, I saw dead bodies piled on every street corner, schoolchildren in uniform, businessmen and others. They were crushed to death or killed by falling debris. People ended up in a giant tent city that was crowded, smelly and unsanitary with a lot of crime. I had to figure out how to survive.
What have you learned from the experience?
That you basically have to look out for others during a disaster and together find a place of safety. You can’t take life for granted. Life matters. So does serving others. Things can change in a second.
2010 Haiti earthquake gallery
Jean Donald Charles | 21 Answers
- Favorite season: Summer
- Favorite natural feature (e.g., waterfalls, oceans, mountains, etc.): Caribbean Sea
- Favorite sport or physical activity: Soccer
- Your national bird if you could have one: Bald eagle
- Place you would most like to visit: Spain
- Favorite holiday: Christmas
- Your national mammal if you could have one: Dolphin
- Favorite actor or actress: Sandra Bullock
- Favorite music genre: Compas
- Your personal motto if you had to have one: “With hard work and the right resources, you can do anything.”
- Coolest thing in the world: Airplanes
- Scariest thing in the world: Snakes
- Favorite all-time TV show: Boy Meets World
- Favorite all-time movie: The Blind Side
- One thing you most want to accomplish in life: Become a civil engineer
- Most precious material possession: Books
- First thing you would buy if you won the $1.5 billion Powerball: Buy mom a new home
- Dream occupation: Work as an engineer designing bridges
- Person you would most like to meet: Cristiano Ronaldo
- Skill you would most like to learn and master: Household handyman
- Humankind’s greatest challenge: Living in unity
To learn more about earning an Associate of Arts (A.A.) degree at Inver Hills, contact:
To learn more about Engineering Fundamentals at Inver Hills, contact:
Joan Carter, PE (MN, IA, CA)
To learn more about the Douglas Differt Difference Makers Endowed Scholarship (D3M), contact:
Executive Director of Foundation and Community Relations