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HCN Online Education in Haiti

Kristen Hertzog The Executive Director of the Haitian Connection Network (HCN), Kristen Hertzog, opens up about her non-profit organization, her love for Haiti, her family life, her passion and devotion to education, and her student sponsorship program. Kristen’s mission is to empower Haitian students and she is determined to provide them with the tools necessary for a great online education.

The conversation took place via Skype on Nov. 5th, 2011 at 1pm E.T. Our co-founder France had a wonderful time with Kristen and was fortunate to meet her lovely adopted daughter from Haiti. Please read on to learn how you can make a difference in a student’s life.

Haiti1Stop: When did you first learn about Haiti?

Kristen: I went to Haiti when I was 16 years old on a 10-day trip with a local church in my area. I am Italian-American and I knew nothing about Haiti. I thought, “This would be cool!”. So while I was in Cite-Soleil, a lady handed me her baby and ran away. I remember staring at this little girl in my arms. Her eyes were as big as life and she didn’t know what end was up. And I started screaming for this woman to take the baby back, saying “Come back! Come back”. Long story short, a member of the team found her, brought her to me, and I handed her the baby and she looked at me and said “I knew that you could give my daughter a better life in America”. And it felt like the clouds had parted, and I felt like God spoke to me and said “Kristen, one day, you are going to adopt a little Haitian girl”. And that stuck with me! Sixteen, what did I know? I cared about pimples and boys, not about adopting Haitian children! But that was so clear in my mind and sure enough, years and years later, I got married, and my husband and I decided to adopt a beautiful little Haitian girl. That is something that has been sort of a self-fulfilling prophecy, if you will in my life. So, there’s always been a connection to Haiti on a very deep level after that.

But, really, my yearly trips to Haiti didn’t begin until in 1999, when I was an adult. And I started leading short-term mission teams down to Haiti with a friend of mine. It was there that I met a young man by the name of Esperando. Esperando before HCN helped himWe were teaching conversational English at a school and this young man came up to me, and said “I need to quit High School this week, because I can’t afford to come here”. And with that, he took the button off of his shirt, rolled up his shirt, and he had all of these third degree burns, all over his arms. I said, “Oh my God, what happened to you?” He said “I have been working the graveyard shift at a plastics company and some of the plastic had spilled on my arm, and I was fired. And because of that, I can no longer afford to go to High School, “Is there anything you can do to help me?”. And myself and the team, we rounded up our souvenir money and we were able to send him the remainder of his High School education. Esperando after HCN helped himSince then, we developed a relationship, a friendship if you will, and after he graduated from High School, he asked me if we would send him to a computer college for two years. And, we were able to secure the funding for that. So long story short, 2004, this guy has barely eked out a High School diploma, he lives in a two-room shack, eats one meal a day, and has no plan B or A. By 2010, because of that two-year computer degree, this guy is now married, has two children, has his own home, is sending his brother to High School, helping his ailing parents, and is running a leading NGO in Haiti. That put a fire under my butt, and made me say “If there is a kid like that, there’s got to be more of them”.

Haiti1Stop: So, in the span of 2004 to now, when did HCN get started?

Kristen: We became an official non-profit organization in 2009. And after that, we were able to secure a University partner to assist us in our quest. So, the way to think about HCN is HCN provides the infrastructure for online learning. We are not a University and we are not a school. We provide everything that a needy student needs to connect. For example, I had a meeting with Wyclef Jean about this very issue. And we were talking about the fact that having one laptop per child is a grand idea in a regular wealthy country. In Haiti, it’s like handing a kid a twelve pound rock. He can’t charge it, he doesn’t know how to fix it, and he doesn’t have internet access. So the laptop is pointless thing to give. The HCN Student Computer Center provides the energy, the backup power, the technical assistance and even one meal per student per day. So that they can be eating and able to concentrate on their online studies while they’re in school. So it provides all those things to make that education happen.

Haiti1Stop: How early do people have to apply to be part of the program?

Kristen: They have to have their High School diploma in hand. The current documentation that is necessary to be considered for HCN Student Computer Center and its partner, University of the People, are that students must read and understand fluent English. The reason why is because our University ally is in Pasadena, California. And therefore, because it is an American based non-profit tuition free education system, it is in English. Secondly, it must be notarized, legalized and translated into the English language as well as their High School transcript. From a documentation standpoint, those are the things that we require before we can go any further in the application or admission process.

HCN looks specifically for other things as well for acceptance into the Computer Center. We look for motivated kids, driven people, people who have had possibly very little assistance in any way in their lives, because of their home lives or financial situation. We look for those kids that we can say in our minds: “where are those kids going to be five years down the road, ten years down the road or is this kid going to show up for school, or is he going to get tired trying to find a tap-tap every day?” So it is a sacrifice on the part of the student, many students, just to get to the learning center. We definitely look for those kids that we know they are going to follow through. It’s not enough to say you want an education; it’s not enough to say you want a better life. You have to do what you have to do in order to make that occur, and I feel very passionately about that.

Haiti1Stop: HCN’s curriculum is Business Administration and Computer Science. Why did you pick these two as your curriculum? (Both of them are two-year associate degrees through the University of the People)

Kristen: Well, several reasons. Number one, they are currently the only ones that the University of the People offers our Haitian students tuition free at this time. And secondly, in my experience with local organizations and businesses on the ground in Haiti, these are two fields that are desperately needed in Haiti. So, I think of it as “HCN is building leaders and building techies”. And as Haiti rebuilds from the earthquake, these are two fields that are critical for success in Haiti’s employment, and economy and the financial sector.

Haiti1Stop: Walk me through a typical day for a student at HCN.

Kristen: Once a student is accepted into the University of the People, based upon availability, students can choose to come Monday through Friday for a morning shift or an afternoon shift. They must be on time, they must be on time, they must be on time! We have students who are coming from Carrefour and areas two hours away, they must be on time as well, so that’s critical. Students get four hours per day to be online, on an HCN laptop with printer, scanner access as needed. Haitian Connection Network (HCN)And their responsibility is really self-motivated because every student in the school could be in a slightly different place in their education, based upon where they started. Then at 12 noon, the students will receive one meal per school day. So the morning shift is leaving and they get to eat, the afternoon shift is coming in and they get to eat so the students can have fellowship together, and talk with each other, and enjoy the meal, and continue on in their day. So it is definitely, a self motivated program, there is no one standing over you, making sure you are doing every last little thing. You must be driven to do it yourself or else you will not succeed.

The way that the University of the People is set up is that there is a lot of social media via text that happens throughout the course of the school day. So while a student might be in Haiti studying, perhaps the 20 people in his classroom virtually might be from all over the globe. It is very exciting for our students that the online learning experience has opened up their eyes to the way other people do [life] in other countries and how important and how global the world has become.

In addition to that, there are sometimes meetings with our administration on the ground in Haiti. We have workshops where American business people will come and talk to our students about various fields of study. We’ve had workshops on resume writing and interview skills. The students get to learn how to respond and relate to people and how to relate to someone who owns a company in Haiti where perhaps, they’ve never talked to anybody in their life who owns a business. The agenda is to really empower the students that they are an equal to the people. We try to give a very well rounded approach to the careers the students will eventually have.

Haiti1Stop: How many staff members do you have in Haiti?

Kristen: We have four full-time members and we have one lady who does the cooking for us. So, the Haitian Connection Network, the infrastructure is in place for additional students. We have someone who does recruitment, someone who does administration and we have technical assistance. For example, many of our students had never turned on a laptop before. You can’t expect them to go online and have no problem with learning the technology and having a learning curve. So we decided that a full time technical assistant was necessary. We have live security as well as computerized security. We have been completely, in my opinion, setup for this to grow, and that is the goal to see the organization grow and for more students able to come.

Haiti1Stop: Is there an opportunity for educators around the world willing to donate their time to HCN?

Kristen: At this time, no. Because University of the People is comprised of professors and folks who have pretty high academic standards. However, HCN is open to discussing with people who have an interest in possibly helping out educationally in other ways. For example, we are planning a trip in the Spring where educators from around the globe can come to HCN and do on the ground training with students. So it would give folks an opportunity to see what is really like down there, and who you are really affecting as well as to bring education as a more hands-on practical approach as opposed to online. People are more than willing to contact me about that at

Haiti1Stop: Do you have an ESL program for the students who do not know how to speak English?

Kristen: That is such an awesome question, because I can’t tell you how proud I am of our current students. I received two emails last week from our students who are volunteering to start ESL classes for the neighborhood. It shows that full self-motivation thing that I just get excited about. It’s one thing for things to be generated from the center, but it’s another thing for Haitians to be taking responsibility for their own future as well. I couldn’t be more thrilled. They are looking at doing two classes starting in the next few months, an advanced and intermediate English class. So, that will help those future students to get their English skills together, so when the time comes, they are ready and prepared with their High School diploma to go into the next step with us. We are also in negotiation with an online ESL training program. We may possibly be in the future opening our doors to additional ESL classes that will be virtual, in addition to the ESL classes the students want to put on.

Haiti1Stop: Where there any obstacles in building a partnership with the University of the People?

Kristen: Not really. I am very fortunate that the President of the University of the People, Mr Shai Reshef, and I were really on the same page with what we wanted to see happen with Haitian education. And last November 2010, a year ago, he flew in from Tel Aviv, Israel, and I flew in from Philadelphia and we met in Haiti with all of the students together. And, that was a wonderful experience for he and for myself. Some of the videos of our trip are on our website at You can actually see Mr. Reshef and myself, visiting the students’ home and talk to the students and it was really an inspiring time for both of us to have that very personal approach with the kids we were helping.

Haiti1Stop: Since HCN’s inception, what has been your graduation rate?

Kristen: That’s a grand question. We just started last year, last November with the two-year associate degree program through our partner, so we don’t have any graduates as of the moment because they are halfway through their education. However, we did pilot the HCN educational program in 2004 with 7 students. And all of them, we are very thrilled to say, are currently employed. I believe that education is a means to employment. I think that is a very mind bending idea to some. In my experience, education is revered in Haiti. For those potential students out there, where if someone were to ask you five years down the road, “where do you want to be”, and you say I still want to be in school, that’s a struggle. School, upon school, upon school is great, but it does not feed your stomach; education and employment does. So, we really search out for those students who look at themselves and say, I understand education is means to employment. And that is where our past students have been as well as our current students, halfway through this program.

Haiti1Stop: Where have your graduates gone to work?

Kristen: We have one working for an international NGO, one who is teaching English classes at a school, another who works in data entry for a local bank and others work in translation or teaching type of jobs.

Haiti1Stop: The ratio of women in technology is low, even in the U.S. How does the ratio of women vs. men students compare in the HCN computer science classes?

Kristen: Loaded question. I currently have 20 students. And I believe 20% are women and we are dedicated to finding female students who can qualify. I for one, as a woman[who] is very passionate about this because essentially in Haiti, the percentage of High School graduates, male to female is significantly lower. So that is my passion and my goal to see a 50-50 percentage rate male to female at HCN.

Haiti1Stop: Tell me more about your feeding program at HCN.

Kristen: We were finding that many of our students because of their economic situation were coming to school with headaches, and really struggling to focus and concentrate. And through a very generous donor, we have been able to provide this feeding program: one meal per day per student. I do want to emphasize that this agreement was for a year, and that year will end at the end of February 2012. For those who might be interested in helping to support us to continue that feeding program, they can contact us at

Haiti1Stop: In addition to that, what are HCN’s needs?

Kristen: The tuition is free; I want to make that real clear. University of the People is a tuition-free online University. Any Haitian, any Chinese person, any African person, any American, if they qualify, they can go tuition-free to University of the People. In Haiti, having those internet options, energy option, technical assistance, that’s where we come in and we are the vehicle to get the student that free education. Our costs per student are $1,600 US dollars per year and that includes all of the infrastructure costs necessary to get the kids the education through University of the People or any educational online program out there.

Haitian Connection Network (HCN)Currently, we have about 60 students pre-qualified and on a waiting list. What that means is we need the funding now to get them into the program. So, really, there are two kinds of folks that should really be hearing this message. The first one is that potential student who knows that they can afford through some means, whether through family, friends, or a job to afford the $1,600 US dollars per year, for a two-year associate degree. The other person is the potential donor who is listening and going, “My God, this has such long term benefits, I want to help fund a waiting student”. Those folks also should know that there is no waste in this program. That $1,600 is just a vehicle to get those students what they need so we need financial assistance, plain and simple. We need help and need people who believe in education, believe in Haiti, believe that education is the means to gainful employment — those are the people we want to talk to as soon as possible.

Haiti1Stop: What have been your biggest struggles in doing what you do with HCN besides financial needs?

Kristen: I think self-empowerment has been a challenge. Because so many Haitians have been through so much in the last few years, and historically, it’s unprecedented, the historical challenges that Haiti has had among so many other countries. I think that there is a sense of feeling beat down, and one of the things that I feel very passionate about as the Executive Director of HCN is to empower the students personally. It is a mind shift for many students who come from economically disadvantaged homes who have been told they’ll never go to college, have never dreamed of being employed gainfully, and actually getting a steady paycheck. They know no one else who’s ever done that.

The mind shift is very challenging and it is something that I personally feel passionate about. I had an interesting situation happen recently. I was down in Haiti, teaching a how to interview workshop with our students, and I asked one of the students to stand up, and pretend that I am a wealthy employer, and they are coming in for a job. And this brand new student who barely knew I was, stood up and very shakily put his hand out to shake my hand and looked down, he was afraid to look me in the eye. And I made him look at me. And I said to him, you are worth it, you are worth this job, and don’t let any history, don’t let any family, don’t let anybody tell you differently. The fact that you have gotten this far proves that you are worthy. This young man got a little emotional about that, and I think that struck a chord. And as a parent of a Haitian child, as well as biological child, I want my kids to feel empowered. I want them to feel like they can do anything and I want my Haitian students to feel the same way.

Haiti1Stop: As far as growth, would you like to expand HCN outside of Port-au-Prince?

Kristen: Oh my word, yes. I would love to have multiple centers in all of Haiti, in every region and city. Within the next five years, I would like to have several learning centers throughout the country. So, we are excited about where this can go. We are still in the baby stages so we have to make the funding work before we can get to that stage.

Haiti1Stop: How can someone sponsor a student at HCN?

Kristen: We have something going on right now called four for forty, [which means] 4 people committing $40 dollars a month for a year, equals one waiting student’s tuition. My husband and I went out for dinner the other night, it was over $40 dollars, just to go to a middle of the road restaurant and have dinner. If there were four people out there, who said, you know what, I can eat at home one night a month, and have 40 dollars to give towards a waiting student, that would be great. That’s the first way that someone can tangibly make a difference in the life of one of these students.Haitian Connection Network (HCN)

The students are ready to go, they are waiting for the phone call to say we have the funding for you and can you start on XYZ date. That’s the most tangible way that you can help out. We are a 501c3 and you can get your tax write-off. This is something that is critical because it has longevity and sustainability. We’d also love to talk to in person or on video Skype to see how people might be able to help HCN. Giving cannot be easier, on the HCN website, you can give right online through Egiving. You can do automatic deductions from your credit, checking or debit card every month. It’s a one- time setup, and every month $40 are deducted from your account, and that money goes directly to the Haitian Connection Network Computer Center for the new student.

Haiti1Stop: What is the last thing you want to leave us with?

Kristen: Right now, 20 kids are enrolled and 60 are on a waiting list. HCN is set up for additional students. We have the laptops, space, security, administration, technical support. What is missing is $1,600 per year per student for a two-year commitment. We need funds to support [our] infrastructure to support the students’ education.

To contact Kristen Hertzog on how to contribute to HCN’s feeding program or to sponsor a student, please forward your inquiries to:

HCN is also listed under our Education section and Sponsor a child section

For information on the University of the People, click here.

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