NJIT Alum Travels to Haiti to Inspect Buildings

Darlene Clovis back in Haiti

When Darlene Clovis (class of 2004) saw the destruction that the earthquake had visited upon Haiti, she knew she wanted to help.  Her parents were both born in Haiti, and though she grew up in America, her first language was Creole. Much of her extended family still lives in Haiti, and one of her young cousins was killed by the earthquake.  

As an NJIT-trained engineer -- Clovis received both her bachelor's (2004) and her master's degree (2006) in biomedical engineering -- she wanted to use her problem-solving skills to help the Haitians. But she didn't know how.

Then she received an email from Engineers Without Borders, saying that the nonprofit Appropriate Infrastructure Development Group needed engineers to volunteer to inspect and rate the safety of buildings in Haiti.  She applied for the job.  The group was looking for civil engineers, but when they learned that Clovis spoke Creole, the main language of Haiti, they happily accepted her. The group taught her how to evaluate a building's structure and sent her to Haiti as part of a team of engineers and seismic experts.  She recently spent a week-and-a-half there.

In this interview, Clovis, who works as a mechanical engineer at Picatinny Arsennal, talks about her trip to Haiti.

Please talk about the inspection and safety work you did in Haiti:
My team consisted of structural engineers and seismic experts. We worked in the north of Haiti, in a town called Cap-Haitien,  as well as in Port-au-Prince. Many of the buildings are still standing, but some are damaged, some seriously so.  It was our job to rate the building's structural soundness.  If we gave the owner a green card, that meant his house was fine. A yellow card meant the building had some problems and a red card meant the building was a danger zone. Most of the houses were in good shape, but some got yellow and red cards. I'm a biomedical engineer who works now as mechanical engineer, so I enjoyed doing a different kind of engineering. Engineers need to be versatile, and this work taught me something new. We also taught the Haitian people how to repair their houses, some basic building techniques.  And they were very happy and grateful for that. They are thankful to be alive.

Did it make you feel good to help the Haitian people?
Of course, it made me very happy. My parents came to American only a year before I was born and I spoke Creole as a girl.  I also have grandparents, aunts and uncles and cousins still living in Haiti.  I met with only a few of them when I was there, because I was working. But I love the Haitian people. They are very brave and happy and thankful for anything you do for them. I loved helping them with their houses.  My relatives are OK, but we did lose a little cousin. I don't know how exactly he died; I didn't have the heart to ask.

What kind of work do you do at Picatinny Arsenal?
I'm a quality engineer--a mechanical engineer--working with munitions, or ammunition. Previously I did research on weapons systems. Picatinny focuses on arsenal research.  I came to work here right after I got my master's from NJIT.  I enjoy working in the Army. There's so much to learn and so many opportunities to learn.   

Can you talk about your days at NJIT?
I was very happy at NJIT. I was in both EOP and the Honors College.  EOP was a huge help to me when I was a student, especially Director Tony Howell, who I consider a second father. Most EOP students feel the same way about him. The staff at the Honors College, especially Harriet Massey and Lois Hulin, were also so supportive. And the Honors College gave me a generous scholarship. When I graduated I was debt-free.  I also worked as a Teacher's Assistant for Math Professor Marty Katzen, who teaches math during the EOP summer boot camp.  He is an amazing professor and it was wonderful to work for him.

And you still teach math during the summers at the EOP academic boot camp?
Yes, after working as a TA for professor Katzen for some years, I now have my own class. EOP was instrumental in helping me, so I love helping the EOP students. They are great students and the EOP program is great. When I was a student, I won two awards from EOP --Woman of the Year and a highest GPA award, so I like to help other students excel academically.

How did you come to NJIT?
I applied to different colleges, including NJIT. I knew I liked the sciences, but didn't know what to major in. And I wasn't sure what college to pick. Then I met Carlo Ontaneda, another EOP director, who convinced me that NJIT was the school for me and that I should consider studying engineering. I did, and he was right. I'm very grateful to him. I was in the first undergraduate biomedical engineering class to graduate from NJIT.

What do you want the American people to know about Haiti, the people and the culture?
On the news you often see Haitians crying and screaming. No one was like that. They are happy and grateful for the help they are getting. They are also skeptical of America, because in the past U.S. governments have supported Haitian dictators. They want to know that America plans to help them, not hurt them. They trusted me when I was there -- I speak Creole and I'm a Haitian-American. I told them that they could trust us, that we were there to help them. That put them at ease. My parents left Haiti because of Duvalier, the dictator, and came to the U.S. I got a great education here, and want to use it in whatever way I can to help Haiti. I was grateful to have spent a week and a half there inspecting their buildings, helping the people remain safe. And I'd welcome any chance to help them again. 

(By Robert Florida, University Web Services)