Window on the World: Education major learns lesson on gratitude in Haiti


We perceive the world as if through a glass.

Most of the time it is a kind of mirror, in which we see ourselves and our preoccupations reflected. Sometimes, though, it is a window – an opening whereby, if only for a moment, we look past ourselves and into the lives of others.

Joanna Cardarelli, a junior education major at The University of Akron, spent last December learning to look through the mirror to the other side – to see a world, far different from her own, with the clarity of compassion.

Through our College of Business Administration’s Institute for Leadership Advancement, she and eight other students took a service and learning trip to Ouanaminthe, Haiti, one of the poorest countries in the world, to teach English at Institution Univers, a nonprofit-supported school for students from pre-K through grade 13. 

For Cardarelli, that mirror first began to crack when she, an Akron native, transitioned from her private school to a public high school, where for the first time she “saw the effects of poverty within [her] community.” She decided, then, that she would pursue a career in education, teaching in low-income areas.


Joanna Cardarelli with students at rocks

Joanna Cardarelli with students at rock formations near Fort-Liberté.


She saw the trip to Haiti as an opportunity “to explore a part of the world drastically different from [her] own” – a chance to break through the mirror and focus on the needs of the less fortunate. 

“I have water, food, electricity, postal services, waste removal … all the little things you never really think about but are vital to how we run everyday life in the U.S., and which I was taking for granted,” she says.

Gratitude is infectious

Cardarelli recalls giving a pack of crackers to a Haitian boy living in a dilapidated hut with his mother, saying she will never forget his elation as he ran back to his mother to have her open the pack.

“Every time you would give them something simple, it was like giving them a million dollars,” she says.

Joanna Cardarelli with Matt Hlas in classroom

Joanna Cardarelli with Matt Hlas, another UA student, teaching Haitian children the English words for body parts.

Another little boy asked to drink from Cardarelli’s water bottle. Since she was advised by one of the Haitian trip leaders to avoid directly sharing her water with others, she offered him a toy instead. 

“I felt so bad,” she says. “I gave him a toy car, trying to make up for that. I do think about him every day.”

In fact, Cardarelli currently keeps a photograph of that boy on the background of her phone – its glass screen serving, appropriately, not to reflect herself, but to remind her of others. 

“I want something to remind me of what I have, and that not everyone is as fortunate as I am,” she says. “I drive in my car and go to a restaurant, and I don’t know, after I left that little boy, if he got water. I don’t know how much food he has. I don’t know if he goes to school. I don’t know if he receives medical care.”

During the trip, Cardarelli suffered an allergic reaction to an attack from fire ants. Despite her protests, one of the trip leaders insisted that she receive medical treatment for her blistering legs. Yet, while she waited for the doctor in the village’s only clinic, what pained her more than her stinging flesh was the fact that she had, for reasons she could not understand, been rushed past other, no less needful patients in the waiting room. 

Joanna Cardarelli in the classroom

Joanna Cardarelli shares a laugh with students in Haiti as fellow UA students, Amanda Bauman and Matt Hlas, look on.

“They have one clinic for 150,000 people, and for me to use that facility that’s not for me, and that I don’t need, I thought was hard,” she says. “I didn’t have to wait; I passed people waiting and felt incredibly guilty that I just passed these people, when I got to go home the next day to my developed country. I don’t know how often they receive medical supplies – what if I took something, and then they ran out, and someone doesn’t have it?”

Inequities painful to see

Throughout the trip Cardarelli became increasingly uncomfortable with what she perceived to be her “privileged” treatment.

“Even there I still had so much privilege,” she says. “We still had beds, we still had water every day, and they didn’t have water to drink. I was still receiving three meals a day, when other people weren’t receiving three meals a day. It was kind of hard to grasp.”

Yet, in looking through the window, Cardarelli saw, beyond the thunderclouds of misery, an inextinguishable light of joy.

She was astonished to find that the Haitians, while worshiping in church, spent much of their time “thanking God for everything they have.” 

“You look outside,” she says, “and they don’t have anything – or at least that was my perception of it. But they were grateful for what they had, even if to most of us it wasn’t a lot.” 

Education is prized

That gratitude was especially evident in the classroom, Cardarelli adds, pointing out that her students voluntarily came to learn English – sometimes walking long distances – during their winter break. Their commitment to education put her to shame. 

“Before the trip, I didn’t want to get out of bed and go to school,” she says. “And then I was in this country where that’s all students want, is to have this education, and they were showing up on their winter break to learn. If they can come to school during their winter break, and if they spend hours and hours striving to be number one in the class, then why can’t I wake up and go to school, even when there’s snow on the ground? If they were in my position, and if they had what I have, they wouldn’t be skipping class, and they would be working their butts off, and I need to be doing the same.”

Cardarelli, who is training to be a middle childhood (grades 4-9) social studies and language arts teacher, says her experience in Haiti – which “made the inner-city classrooms in the U.S. look amazing,” by comparison – has helped prepare her to teach in the impoverished communities to which she feels called to serve.

Determination to make a difference

“Moving forward in my career, I will remember the challenges the students at Institution Univers face, and how they continue to push themselves to learn more and work harder,” she says. “Even with few resources, students can learn a lot – as long as they develop the drive and motivation to learn and succeed. I may not be able to fund the newest technology, and secure every needed material, but I can be an advocate for my students, someone to be there for them, and someone to push them forward. 

“Not everyone is afforded an education in this world, and that is something I want my students to know and learn, along with the power of education – the way education can change and shape people’s lives and the larger effect it has on society,” Cardarelli continues.

Cardarelli also intends to make her classroom a window to the world, as it were.

“Having an understanding of a different part of the world will help me have those conversations with students about real-life issues and about those places that are still so far behind the United States and other places in the world, and why that is, and taking their problems and doing problem-based learning,” she says. “So, you know, pulling out pictures of these trash piles, and saying, ‘what is an idea that we have? What could we do?’”

Cardarelli, who says that her experience was, from a personal and academic standpoint, “incredibly beneficial,” encourages others to take advantage of similar experiential learning opportunities here. 

“It’s important to take advantage of everything this University does have to offer, whether it be Zips for Haiti or something else on campus,” she says. “College is one of the only times you have the chance to experience things like this, and I think The University of Akron does a really good job promoting different experiences and making sure that students are having these experiences that are going to help them in any career that they choose, across the board. We had two students from other universities attend the trip because their own universities don’t have an opportunity like this.”

To borrow words spoken in a different context, but which are nonetheless apt: it is through such opportunities that we, who “see through a glass, darkly,” might be able to see others “face to face.”