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Mountains in the mind: Student reaches new heights in Haiti

05/23/2018

The mountains appeared like the hunched, mossy backs of slumbering giants as the plane descended through the clouds.

Amanda Bauman, looking through a cabin window, wondered what she had gotten herself into.

A fourth-year biology student here at The University of Akron, she had been encouraged by one of her professors to take this trip to Haiti to earn credit toward a French language minor. Bauman and eight other students from the University, through the College of Business Administration’s Institute for Leadership Advancement, were to spend a week in Ouanaminthe, performing service and learning projects, such as teaching English at Institution Univers, a nonprofit-supported school for students from pre-K through grade 13.

The naturally apprehensive Bauman – a long way from her home in McHenry, Ill. – was determined to keep an arm’s length between herself and that foreign and frightful country. 

“I have an auto-immune disease, so I take medicine, and that suppresses my immune system, so I was constantly on edge,” she says. “I Purell’d every second.”

A few days later, she would find herself at the foot of one of those mountains – like David before Goliath, armed with hand sanitizer instead of a slingshot.

 

Amanda Bauman in gym with students

Amanda Bauman spends time with a student during a volleyball game .

 

Bauman and her peers were to scale the 3,000-foot Bonnet a L’Eveque to reach Citadelle Laferrière, a fortress built after the Haitians gained their independence from France.

“I remember feeling so overwhelmed at the base of the mountain,” she says. “On top of feeling like I wasn’t in shape, I think that’s also where everything that we had experienced throughout the week fully hit me.”

Unsure she could make a difference

In addition to seeing the desperation of families living in squalor and children begging in the streets, Bauman had been contending all week with bouts of anxiety.

When she first stood in front of a classroom of staring students, her tongue tied itself into a knot, and she froze.

The stress, building all week, came to a head as she labored up the mountain, the sunlight beating down on her sanitized skin. She could bear no more.

“I broke down,” she says. “Until that point, I hadn’t really let myself get emotional.”

A horse was procured by the tour guide to take Bauman to the top.

Amanda Bauman at chalkboard

Amanda Bauman in a classroom where UA students taught English to Haitian students at Institution Univers.

“I felt embarrassed and a little bit ashamed,” she says. “I felt that I had given up too quickly.”

When the group stopped for lunch, Bauman took time to reflect.

Perseverance pays off

She might have remembered standing in front of that classroom, afraid to speak, fearing that the students would ridicule her broken French.

Yet, even then, she had persevered – largely thanks to the encouragement and support of those same students.

“Just the amount of love, even without really being able to communicate effectively, no matter what – it was just always pouring out toward us, so we always felt very welcome,” she says.

It was the same warmth she felt when, taking a break from helping the students set up for their Christmas party, a little girl, without saying a word, came over and lay her head on Bauman’s lap.

“I think what was so touching to me was that she felt safe near me, despite my barely being able to communicate with her,” Bauman says. “Here in America, we’re taught very early on in life to be extremely cautious around strangers. It was a beautiful experience.”

Trust from students a turning point

Bauman felt that same unconditional trust in the classroom. The students were not waiting for her to mess up or judging her for her silence. They were simply grateful that she was there, and eager to learn as much as they could. They waited patiently. Her fear subsiding, she began to speak.

“It was a turning point,” Bauman says, remembering the moment.

And so, a quarter mile from the top of the mountain, she might well have wondered why, if these strangers – “the most beautiful people she’d ever met” – had trusted her, why did she not trust herself?

Amanda Bauman at Institution Univers

Amanda Bauman gained a new perspective and much more self confidence during her week in Haiti.

If these people, who had little access to clean water – let alone a ready supply of hand sanitizer – could be so full of kindness and gratitude for what little they did have, what right had she to complain?

Bauman thought of how she had taken so much for granted in her life.

“A lot of that was shocking to me, seeing how much more we have and how unappreciative we are of it,” she says. “It kind of put some things in perspective.”

Bauman, finishing her lunch, rallied. She looked at the horse, a symbol of that self-distrust – of a smooth and sanitized life, and a reluctance to walk its rough and dusty path. Then she looked at the mountain, that giant whose head was for the taking.   

Summoning a strength she never knew she had, Bauman refused the horse and walked the rest of the way, reaching a far greater summit within herself.

“I learned that I’m honestly capable of much more than I think I am,” she says. “When I got to the top, I realized that I needed to apply that lesson to the rest of my life.”

Embracing the lessons

The UA students spent one night that week dancing and eating at a local restaurant. For Bauman, it was a celebration, among other things, of newfound confidence.

“It was a huge point for me where I felt 100 percent comfortable with everybody,” she says. “I’ve always been pretty shy, but looking back, it’s crazy how quickly I was able to feel like I was a part of this group of people, all of whom were strangers to me prior to the trip.”

Having scaled the mountain, and slayed the monster, in her mind, Bauman no longer approaches life at arm’s length.

In fact, after graduating, she hopes to attend medical school and return to Haiti, or similarly impoverished countries, through Doctors Without Borders – making sure that she gets her hands dirty in the service of others. Specifically, she wants to ensure that women and children have access to adequate health care and nutrition, she says.

“I want so many things for these people,” Bauman adds. “If I could see all these people getting the help that they need, whenever they need it, that would be amazing.”

Bauman knows that, somewhere, another mountain, with hulking, grassy shoulders, waits for her. But this time she is ready, with calloused hands, to take hold and climb.


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