A student-led effort to help rebuild Haiti after the January 2010 earthquake that devastated the country was chosen as the winner of this year's UC President's Award for Outstanding Student Leadership.

The UC Haiti Initiative, which has student members on all 10 campuses, works with the Université d'État d'Haïti, the State University of Haiti, on projects designed to reinforce the public higher education system and to spur social innovation in the country.

"The UC Haiti Initiative is an example of a promising practice not only within the UC community, but within the global community," UC President Mark Yudof said in prepared remarks delivered by Nathan Brostrom, UC executive vice president for business operations, at Wednesday's (May 16) UC Board of Regents meeting in Sacramento. "Its efforts stand tall in the long, distinguished tradition of public service that defines this university."

Chancellors from UC Riverside, UC Berkeley, UCLA and UC Santa Barbara nominated UCHI for the award. Co-founders Nicolas Pascal and Noah Stern are being presented with the award at Wednesday's meeting.

"Thanks to the support UCHI has received from the UC Office of the President and UC chancellors, UCHI has been able to establish itself as a fixture within the UC, and a positive force for change in Haiti," said Stern, a UC Berkeley graduate and former campus student government president.

UCHI takes a novel approach to sustainable development in Haiti by brokering peer-to-peer projects in collaboration with the Université d'État d'Haïti (UEH). Through this approach, UCHI leverages the talent and resources of all University of California campuses into a bilateral partnership with the UEH community.

Students, faculty, staff and doctors from UC have traveled to Haiti on aid and development missions, and chapters of the UCHI have formed on each UC campus.

Some of the UC Haiti Initiative's ongoing projects include:

  • An inter-university debate competition focused on Haitian redevelopment projects
  • A disaster-response training project to equip medical students with emergency and pre-hospital medicine skills required before their social service residency.
  • Skill-building programs to train future faculty members who will teach at UEH.

The academic and entrepreneurial talent in the UC system "can be a powerful development cluster," said Pascal, chair of UCHI's steering committee who graduated from UC Santa Barbara with a master's degree in global studies and international development.

The focus on public higher education and social entrepreneurship were chosen because they are two areas that play to UC's strengths and can be effective models for mutual development between campuses and Haiti, Pascal said.

"We wanted to do what we could to channel our efforts and plug in a niche where we could serve the public good," he said.

UCHI was created after an April 2010 meeting at UCSF of more than 200 UC students, faculty, staff and others interested in helping rebuild Haiti. Among the meeting organizers was Tu Tran, who then was a UC Berkeley student.

Tran said he was spurred by his family's experience of being displaced to do something to help Haiti. He was born in a refugee camp in Thailand and might have died if it weren't for volunteer doctors.

"If it wasn't for Doctors Without Borders, my mother and I wouldn't be here today," said Tran, whose family fled Vietnam for the United States toward the end of the Vietnam War. "I was given a second chance in life."

The experience instilled in Tran a desire to pursue a medical career so that he could help others. He is now the country coordinator for UCHI and has spent most of the last year in Haiti organizing the group's efforts.

The support of students, faculty, staff and chancellors at all campuses and the UC Office of the President got the ball rolling, but the work has just begun, Pascal said.

"We want to take these nascent bonds that we've established and continue to pull them toward Haiti," he said.

UCHI's founders say they're dedicated to help Haiti over the long haul even though they've all graduated from college.

"We do have this lifelong commitment to Haiti. We've made so many great friends in Haiti through our work. We feel tied to it for a long, long time," said Will Smelko, another co-founder of the initiative who graduated from UC Berkeley and also is a former president of the campus's student government.

Added Pascal, "This is going to be our life's journey. I don't think anybody is going to be able to forget this experience."