Study of the Soul: Psychology student explores Haiti and self


Strictly speaking, the student of psychology is a student of the soul (the “psyche,” in Greek) – that subtle substance that no textbook, however thick, can comprehend.

Those who practice the art of “therapeia,” or healing counsel, must encounter that substance directly – in all its nakedness, stripped of the comforts and conveniences that often, like an ill-fitting garment, conceal its contours.

And so it was that Alexia Santiago, a Youngstown native and senior psychology major here, sought a place, far from the distractions of American life, where she might study that soul in all its native splendor.

That place was Ouanaminthe, Haiti, where she and eight other University of Akron students spent a week last December, teaching English at Institution Univers, a nonprofit-supported school for students from pre-K through grade 13. (The trip is offered through the College of Business Administration’s Institute for Leadership Advancement.)


Alexia Santiago leads classs

Alexia Santiago leads class at Institution Univers in Haiti — teaching students the names of body parts in English.


Santiago thought she knew what to expect. She had heard and read about the country, its natural disasters, crippled economy, ramshackle homes and hunger. But mere anecdotes and words on a page seldom prepare one for the shocks and riots of reality.

Face to face with abject poverty

The plane landed with a thud, wheels bouncing in the dust, engine sputtering in the dense and tropic air. Santiago and her peers shuffled through the baggage claim and into what seemed a paradise obscured, but not quite lost: a juxtaposition of mountains and ruined buildings, palm trees and busted street lamps, fragrant winds and birdsongs mingling with the exhaust and drone of motorbikes.

The sunlight beat on a concrete roof nearby, where children gamboled, barefoot, near the precipice.

“I think that was the first shocking thing that we as a group witnessed,” Santiago says. “There were probably seven kids up on this roof, just dancing around, without supervision.”

On one of the group’s excursions – a hike up a mountain to the historic Citadelle Laferrière, a fortress built after the Haitians wrested independence from France – Santiago noted the huts lining the mountainside, and the desperate eyes, peering out, of emaciated mothers and children.

“They were very malnourished and poorly clothed,” she says.

Santiago had been to Puerto Rico to visit her family, and so was prepared for the sweltering heat and big-winged bugs. But she was not quite prepared for the suffering.

“You hear stories, but actually being there brings everything to reality,” she says. “If you’ve never seen it, it’s very shocking. You think, ‘How is this happening?’”

She might have had reason to think, at the time, that the soul – that indomitable and immortal spirit – was nothing but a consoling fantasy, meant to distract us from the emptiness of those bloated bellies and the doomed exertions of tired hearts.

Alexia Santiago at the blackboard

Alexia Santiago teaches English to Haitian students.

Joy still to be found

Yet Santiago, interacting with students and townspeople, could not help but notice that those bellies were often, inexplicably, full of laughter – and that those hearts, caged in too-conspicuous bones, seemed to beat to some triumphant tempo only they could hear.

These people were hungry, but they were happy. Their bodies suffered, but their souls sang.

Wherever she went, Santiago says, she was met with parched but smiling lips, and a hearty “bonjour!” to greet her on her way.

She had learned, in her psychology courses, about the “hierarchy of needs,” and that one could not really be hungry and happy at the same time. Yet these Haitians were not simply happy; they were joyful.

How could these poor people, who had nothing, act as if they had everything?

Giving thanks

Santiago remembers them singing in church, in full-throated exaltation. She looked to the translator, whose words, like the sun emerging from the clouds, laid bare the root of a gladness that flourished like those palms among the ruins.

“They were thanking God for all they have,” Santiago says. 

It was then that she realized that these people, who indeed had nothing, nevertheless had everything.

“That one stuck with me,” she says. “They don’t have as many material things, but they have what’s most important – they have their life, their family, their friends.”

They took nothing for granted, receiving all they had with gratitude – including, especially, their education.

“You saw kids on the side of the road reading their textbooks,” she says. “You don’t really see that in the U.S. Some people don’t even open their textbooks the whole semester!”

Alexia Santiago exploring

Alexia Santiago exploring rock formations at Fort-Liberté.

Santiago adds that the students at their English camp were on winter vacation, and willingly sacrificed their free time to attend class, sometimes traveling long distances to do so.

In comparison to the magnanimous (literally, “great-souled”) people of Haiti, she might well have felt small and paper-thin, like the lifeless pages of her textbooks.

She had come to provide an education, and to trumpet the freedoms and opportunities it affords – while she herself had at times squandered those freedoms and opportunities, failing to fully commit herself to her studies, she says.

Santiago remembered how, as a New Student Orientation leader at UA, she had presumed to counsel others when she herself most needed counsel – meriting, in her conscience, the old rebuke, “Physician, heal thyself.”

In Haiti, she received that counsel, that healing.

“Just the privilege of being at a university, and not taking it for granted, was something big that I learned,” Santiago says. “I feel like I definitely have more realization of the things I have here. I feel like it’s a responsibility now to call myself out, and other people out too, to make the most of all the resources we have here.”

Filled with that Haitian spirit, she returned to school better equipped “to understand people and how to make their lives better,” she says. Having studied the soul “in vivo,” as it were – and not merely in the sterile pages of a textbook – she was prepared to minister to it.

Haiti helps prepare her for the future

“I didn’t want to be a hypocrite,” she says. “I decided, if I’m going to be leading people, I want to be able to back up what I’m saying,” she says, adding that her experiences in Haiti have prepared her to better understand the suffering of others.

After graduating in May, Santiago is now headed to Columbus, Ohio, where she will spend a year or two mentoring and tutoring impoverished students through AmeriCorps. Afterward she hopes to practice family or child counseling, and possibly apply for graduate programs in social work.

“There are some things that are universal,” she says, reflecting on what she has learned. “Maybe others look different than me or speak a different language, but we value the same things – real and true connections to the places around us. We all have the same end goal.”

The nature of that goal is hinted at in Santiago’s concluding words on the Haitians.

“You can feel the love in them,” she says. 

Therein, the psychology student might well say, lies the comprehension of all the secrets of the soul.