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Jean-François Seide went from sleeping on the streets to heading to Oxford



TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - University of Portland Pamplin School of Business graduate Jean-François Seïde came to Portland on a four-year full scholarship named after Molly Hightower, who died in the 2010 Haiti earthquake. Jean-François Seïde could never have imagined what fate had in store for him on Jan. 12, 2010.

“The thing I learned the most is to not really get attached to anything because it can be gone in minutes,” Seïde said. “I lost everything in a minute.”

But out of the devastation of the Haiti earthquake may come new hope — for Seïde, and his country. Now 28, the Haitian graduated from the University of Portland last Saturday with a degree in business, and has been accepted to the University of Oxford in England for a Master in Public Policy.

It’s a totally new path made possible by a unique scholarship program. The Molly Hightower Memorial Scholarship was named for another University of Portland student whose life was ended by that earthquake.

A new direction

The then-22-year-old Seïde was just getting home from work that fateful day — his heart set on completing a technical degree in telecommunications — when the shaking started.

“By the time we were running out, the stairs were starting to collapse,” he says.

Thankfully, Seïde and his roommate were able to act quickly enough to get out of their building before it crushed them. Others were not so lucky.

The death toll of the 7.0 magnitude earthquake is estimated at about a quarter of a million people, including 122 Americans.

One of those was University of Portland student Molly Hightower, who was working at the orphanage where Seïde grew up. Hightower’s death has left a deep scar on her family, who declined to be interviewed.

Hightower’s friend and fellow 2009 graduate Rachel Prusynski helped set up the scholarship program that bears her name. The Molly Hightower Memorial Scholarship gave Seïde a full-ride and now has a second and final recipient from Haiti.

During a break from graduate school, Prusynski was visiting Hightower during the year she planned to volunteer at the NHP International orphanage in Port-au-Prince. That’s when the earthquake hit.

Prusynski said Hightower would be happy for Seïde’s graduation.

“I feel like she would just be pumped for Jean-François,” Prusynski says. “It’s really nice to see something good come out of all of it.”

Hospital flooded with people

Seïde also knows loss. His parents died before he turned 4 and his aunt took him to the NPH International orphanage when he was 7.

He liked the orphanage, but with a campus of about 1,000 children and living in a home of about 25 of them, there wasn’t a lot of guidance.

“You learn to be responsible for yourself because you learn that you need to take care of things yourself,” he says.

After sleeping on the streets for a few days after the earthquake, Seïde and a friend decided to go back to where they grew up and see what they could do to help.

St. Damien Pediatric Hospital, part of the massive charity complex of NPH International, was flooded with people who were hungry, homeless and in pain. Seïde says he spent days — including one straight 24-hour period — in the radiology center helping take X-rays, something he had no previous experience doing.

“After the earthquake, you just need your brain,” Seïde says, explaining the sole qualification during the crisis. “The amount of people that came to the hospital, it was, like, crazy.”

Eventually, Seïde set his sights on the children, creating the Angels of Life daycare program that has grown into 19 camps across the world through NPH. By September of that year the Port-au-Prince program was serving 2,000 kids, he says.

“They mostly need a place to stay, so they can have hope,” Seïde says. “It’s a struggle to be a kid and look for your own food and a place to sleep.”

Exceeding expectations

Prusynski says Seïde has exceeded her expectations during his four years at UP. She was just hoping the nonnative English speaker would pass his classes, but he has excelled and participated in numerous extra projects besides.

“He’s taken advantage of such great things,” she says. “He kind of took it and exceeded all of our expectations.”

His venture project through the competitive Entreprenuer Scholars Program was to develop a system for in-store pick-up of online purchases, something he believes would do well in Haiti and other developing countries.

Seïde isn’t sure yet what he wants to do with his degree. But his immediate plans are to lead a three-week volunteer trip during May to India to work at Missionaries of Charity, where Mother Theresa used to work.

Seïde says whatever he ends up doing, he wants it to have an impact.

“I just don’t see myself in business for the sake of money.”

NOTE: Seïde attended the University of Portland’s Pamplin School of Business, named after Portland Tribune founder Robert J. Pamplin, Jr. The coincidence had no bearing on this article.


Shasta Kearns Moore
Reporter
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Twitter:@ShastaKM
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