Haitian student beat the odds to finish collegeby Tim Post, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — Wes Alcenat spent his childhood in Haiti amid political violence that shattered his family and threatened his life.
But he found safety and a future in Minnesota. Tomorrow he graduates from Macalester College senior, completing another chapter in a life-long struggle.
Born in Gonaïves in northern Haiti, Alcenat moved to the capital of Port-au-Prince when he was 6 years old after his father, a political activist, was killed in 1994. His family supported former Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, ousted that year in a bloody coup.
"He was in complete opposition to the military junta that was in power at the moment," said Alcenat, 22. "As a result his life was targeted and he was killed by the military."
Alcenat's mother died around the same time. He doesn't really know what happened to her; no one does. But he thinks she was killed because she shared his father's political activism.
Alcenat's grandparents were targeted as well, so they fled to Minnesota as refugees. They couldn't bring their grandson without a legal adoption, a struggle that would last the next four years.
Alcenat spent those years in Haiti being shuttled between distant relatives and friends of the family. They were protecting him from the people who killed his father.
"The military, their goal was to make sure that if one person of that family was targeted then the rest has to be targeted also," he said. "So my life was in constant threat and constant danger."
That wasn't the only danger Alcenat faced in the slums of Haiti, where even day-to-day life was a challenge.
"I was constantly fighting poverty, violence that was occurring around me, the inability to go to school, the lack of access to clean water and necessities that you can imagine having here," he said.
Alcenat was 10 years old before his grandparents were able to legally adopt him and bring him to Minnesota.
He credits his adoption to Angela McCaffrey, an attorney and professor at Hamline Law School in St. Paul. McCaffrey worked with Alcenat's grandparents, the U.S. government and Haiti to secure his adoption. McCaffrey died of cancer just a few months ago.
"I cannot really express what it really means to me that she passed away and that she won't be at my graduation," Alcenat said "This is someone that I very much consider family, someone who single-handedly is responsible, besides my grandparents, for my own survival. The success that I have had I owe to her."
He spent his teenage years growing up in south Minneapolis, surrounded by his refugee family, his grandparents, aunts and uncles.
Although he feels part of him will always remain in Haiti, Alcenot considers himself a firmly planted Minnesota resident.
That's why Alcenat, with the help of a few fellow Macalester students, started a fundraiser for Haiti after January's devastating earthquake.
They raised nearly $20,000 for the relief effort.
"What really compelled me to help in the Haiti effort, was not simply that I was Haitian," he said. "It's that I could visualize myself in the place of those children currently suffering because I know there was a day that I was one of them."
Alcenat will graduate from Macalester College with a degree in political science and history. This fall he enters a history program at Columbia University. When's finished, he hopes to teach college and perhaps someday become involved in politics.
"Whatever I do will involve making a change not just in Haiti, but I would like to think my change will be universal," he said. "It'll be something that reaches beyond Haiti, beyond the U.S. and impact others everywhere."
Alcenat will be the student speaker at his graduation this Saturday at Macalester College in St. Paul. A group of faculty and students picked him to deliver the speech, finding the story of his life inspirational.
He plans to encourage his 470 fellow graduates to become leaders who believe in what he calls "radical hope." He said that's what took him from the slums of Haiti to where he is today.
- Morning Edition, 05/14/2010, 6:50 a.m.