You Can Shake Any Student in Haiti...
Update: We originally interviewed Cherline for this portrait in June 2016. In early 2017, after becoming a Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA), she moved to New York City. "I moved to NYC for one reason," she says, "to begin a new life from my ex-husband. As any person who done something like this can tell you, the road is not is easy to start a new beginning."
Though she had CNA certification from Louisiana, she soon learned that her certification wouldn't qualify her to work as a CNA in New York state. “Because I did not have a lot of money, I had to work for a whole year to provide for myself in this expensive state before I decided to [go] back to school this year,” she explains. She decided to enroll in a Clinical Medical Assistant program at Mildred-Elley college in order to transfer more easily to a nursing program. “I started in January 26, 2018. I’ll graduate in January next year,” she says. She says her goal hasn’t changed: “Obtaining a Bachelor’s degree as a Registered Nurse, and be able to work at a geriatric facility will be a dream come true.”
"To start my new life, I had to take a Home Health Aide course with Sunnyside Home Care Services to find a new job," she says. "Sunnyside hired me as soon I finished the course." She is still working for them, caring for special needs children, intellectually disabled young adults, and disabled adults. She says that although she left Delgado earlier than she planned, she took some important lessons with her. "I survived from this fast moving state where everyone is like a walking vehicle on the street with rules and principles I learned when I took my first class with the ACE program," she says. "Living in New York required self discipline, and time management if you want to [achieve] your short and long time goals. I learned time management with ACE program and self discipline from life experiences. I combine both to make keep going day by day."
My name is Cherline F. Joseph.
I’m from Haiti. I’m 31 years old. And when I was in 12th grade and you take your final exam like to have your high school equivalency, you gonna like take [tests on] all those books that you carried on your shoulder before this year.
And here [in the U.S.], I have the chance like if I don’t pass reading, for example, I will retake reading. In Haiti, you don’t pass reading, you will take the whole set again. That was why I was dropping out. I was so tired and angry because you know you spend your nights studying and try to remember everything and you don’t pass and you’re gonna retake the whole set again.
That’s why a lot of people drop out of school. If they had the chance like here, so if you don’t pass one book you can go retake it and your whole points stay, they would [continue], but you have to go again and retake it like you start [from] zero. So you can imagine that...
When they ask you a question on a test, it’s like they want your brain to explode.
You can go in Haiti and shake any student...who’s sleeping and ask them for anything in their book they will [say] “Oh, this” because they have to keep it. It’s like mindblowing. You have to keep everything in your head because if you don’t, you will not pass any exams.
I remember when I was in like 10th grade, you [could] like shake me up and say, “Can you give me the mass atomic of H2SO3? I would get up and say, “Okay, 98.” Even [when] I’m sleeping I’m still thinking about my book because if you don’t know it, they will beat you up. You know you’re going to school tomorrow and you have to be ready. That was it. So you see, it is more difficult in my country than here.
What did you do when you dropped out of school?
I stayed home helping my little nephews and niece, push[ing] them to go farther, always bugging them when they don’t wanna wake up and go to school. When they heard me go inside the room, they’d already wake up because they know what’s going to happen. [Laughs] That’s what I did - just stay home.
What did you do to bother them so that they’d go to school?
Oh, I’d slap at you, or like start talking crazy, like, “If you don’t go to school you will see what is going to happen to you. So I told them, “Take some examples [from] the kids that don’t have chances to have someone that can watch over their shoulder because their mom is dead.” I was like, “You have to go.”
And most of them now is in 12th grade. Yeah [laughs] I’m in big trouble because they’re gonna call me and say “I passed!” They have to go to college. That was my big arrangement with them: “Continue and I will be with you. If you drop, I’m out.”
This July they have to take their final exams. They passed the first one, now they have to take the other one. They take Bac 2, they call it Bac 2. You have to take Bac 1 and Bac 2.
In my country, it’s not like over here [where] you have financial aid.
...No, you pay out of your own pocket. That’s the big deal. That’s why so many of them, when they finish they’re sitting down at their house if they don’t have nobody to help them to continue because it’s expensive and you pay out of your own pocket. You have no help. Everything’s like that. They can study, they can be everything but they don’t have this kind of help, like grant money, scholarships... It’s not easy.
Can You Imagine a Mother...
Can you imagine a mother who got 9 children, who’s unalphabetic --
-- like cannot read, cannot write her name -- push her children to be some of them economists, some of them travel agents, some of them psychiatrists? Yeah [laughs] can you imagine that? That was my mom. That was my mommy. She don’t even know how to read and write her name.
And even [if] you like study in front of my mom, you say something that’s not right in the book, she will say, “Eh, that’s not right.” I don’t know if she learned it as a first kid, you know...[laughs] “Uh-uh, that’s not right.”
My older sister was studying like historie d’Haiti (history of Haiti), and she was talking about Christophe Colomb (Christopher Columbus). And she put some funny stuff like, oh, “Christophe Colomb, his horse put a hat on and have a ______,” and my mom was like, “What the hell you talkin’ about? That’s not right! That’s not in the book.” It wasn’t in the book! And we were all like...because we couldn’t believe it.
I got the little books they give you in pre-K that’s got some images and you can read the [alphabet] put phrases together like here, when the children is in the letter A, they have “apple,” “avocado.” And if you don’t say a fruit right, my mom will say, “That’s not the one.” She don’t even read or write.
And she done something incredible...
You’re the first one, you’re going to school first. When you finish [studying], you’re going to help the little one. [And] even though you are the little one, you’re on top of the first one like [if] the first one didn’t pass like you passed so many classes, or you learn quicker.
Like when I was in 4th grade, they skipped me 5th grade. They put me in 6th grade because I was like...it was too little for me [laughs]. So I would have to help the one who was behind. That’s how it was.
[My mom] didn’t raise me. My godmother raised me. She didn’t have kids, and she’s tough. I don’t know, maybe that’s how they make me skip 5th grade, because she make you study a lot. But I don’t know, even though I didn’t grow up with my mom, your mom’s still your mom.
But when I first go there, to my mama’s house, and I see how they do it, I have to help my big brothers. And that’s why my big brother was like, “Those people don’t know how the hell to correct those papers,” because I helped him and passed those two [tests] and I couldn’t pass. [Laughs]
And he never give up on me. Every time. Sometimes I sit down and I say, “I’m not gonna register this year” and he just take my paper and go and register me. And I see my...[Laughs] my ID badge come in my mailbox and I was like, “Who registered me?” And he was like, “Me. With my own money. [Laughs] “Really?” “Yeah. On my own money.” He did that. He don’t want me to stop. He want me to continue.
And does [your mom] know that you’re back in school and that you got your high school equivalency?
Yes, she knows. She knows and she’s happy about that, because she says I will never give up on myself. She knows that.
How did you tell her?
I called her. Even though she’s difficult to hear clearly. I called her and tell her about it. And my brother repeat it for her. And she was so happy. And she like praying. And she say, “Yeah, I pray for you every time!” That’s her answer. [Laughs]
Yeah, Mom never call you to say, “Oh, how you doing?” “Fine.” [She says] “Did you pray this morning?” [Laughs] That’s how she is.
How have your family members in Haiti responded to you going back to school here?
They are so about it because they know how valuable that is for me and for them, and they know how I struggled in my country to pass to have a high school diploma equivalency. So that was it. When I said that I passed, they was so happy for me.
And when I told them I would continue, they said, “Never choose the work first before school.” That’s the answer. And they’re not bothering me for anything. Like, you know, sometimes people call you and ask for money or everything like that. They never do that. Even [if] they call me and I say, “I’m in class,” they hang up the phone because I say I’m in class. They wait until I’m done to call me back.
Before the earthquake, I wished [I would’ve] staying in school...
I registered in Lansing (sp?). It was on the top of the mountain...They say “Lycee Joel & Francois...” something like that, but people call it ‘Tit Place Cazo. I was there. I was in school. I went back. Yeah I went back before I came here. I wake up and say, “I want to go back and show them I can pass it.”
After the earthquake, when I was at school, something come on my mind.
It was like three basic questions. “What the hell I’m doing?,” “Why I stopped going in the first place?”. Because there was so many people laying down on the ground I couldn’t help. My Pre-K classmates, some of them are doctors, nurses, engineers. Everybody has something.
And I was like, “Why was I dropping?” And I was crying looking at all that dust, all those suffering in front of me and I was like, “I have to do something much bigger and much better.”
And, you know, after the earthquake, people [were] going and moving around, the school was closing, buildings is like collapsed...
...Nowhere to go. And I went back and registered to go to take the exit exam without going to school. I stayed home, I studied, and I didn’t pass [by] two points. You understand that? Stay home, with all those books, study, working by myself, keep my brain going, and I didn’t pass by two points. That was very harsh. And I said, “I give up.” It’s so hard.
And my big brother was like, “You know how many people have...? None. You stay home, study, and you don’t pass [by] two points and you’re still mad at you? That means you don’t understand what’s going on, do you?” And I was like, “Okay...” He just was like encouraging me but I didn’t feel it, because I want[ed] to pass. You know when you want something so badly, and everyone says, “That’s okay! You’re gonna get it!” you’re still not gonna get what they’re saying because you don’t pass.
What did he mean when he said, “Do you know how many people...?” What was he talking about?
Because [some] people [who] are still go[ing] to school, they don’t pass...People fail [by] 10 or 12, and you stayed home and you just failed [by] two points. [He was like] do you know how many people who have done that? None. You do it in your own home, you don’t even have a teacher out in front of you just like bothering you or giving you homework. You take care of yourself. So maybe something go wrong. [Laughs] Or maybe those people who correct those papers don’t know what the hell they are doing. [Laughs] That was his answer.
Coming to America
I come out of my country and come here in 2013 -- February 2013.
My husband bring me here with my application for residency and everything. And the first thing I was thinking about -- I see a lot of Black people at the airport and I saw it like, “Okay, maybe [they] speak the same language as me” because I was in Florida. And the first guy I ask to help me, he didn’t know what I was talking about because I was talking French and he wasn’t talking in French because he’s an American. And I was like, “Well, a lot of people [look] like you, but they don’t speak the same language as you. You have to do something: learn the language first, and everything else come after that.”
I [would] watch the news...
...like CNN. I watch the weather. And movies, like movies I watched before I came here in French, and I just go to Walmart and I see the DVDs. You know, the pictures say everything? Even though you don’t know what they say on the top of the cover, but you see those pictures before and you say, “Hey, I’ve watched that movie before!” and I just pick it up and I watch it and I [began] to understand everything they say. And that was so bizarre for me: how can I understand when people talk to me and I can’t even talk to them?
When I first come in America and I fill out my first job application three years ago...
And you know when you fill a job application, the first thing was like you fill your name, everything, address. You know the second question: did you have your high school equivalency or GED?
And I was crying. I said, “I -- I cannot even say yes?!” I was so mad. And I remember I broke my first phone. Yeah. ‘Cause when I saw that question, I was like...I broke it. Dropped it on the floor and cried. I said, “Why I cannot even answer that question?”
And I go online and look up GED or HiSET equivalency questions and I see so many easy questions I can even answer.
And I say, “That’s more harder in my country.” I can pass it. If I was born here, I would like close my eyes and pass every book, each of them. My only barrier was the language, the new words or the synonyms. That was the only thing I was worried about, because it was like my exam when I [was] in 9th grade in my country... No, 6th grade.
Here, they only give you the word problem and the answer sheet and you just circle. No, in my country, you do it and you circle the answer. You got the number, multiple numbers in front of you. You got to locate it in your brain.
My friend come here at Delgado for ESL...
...because she already have her high school diploma from Haiti and I [didn’t] have mine and she told me I would not be able to get in. So, I’m the kind of person if you tell me something, I’m gonna look it up for myself to see if it’s true or not. And I did it.
And I Google it and I see that I can go to adult ed, earn my high school equivalency, and move on...
I take my first class with Ms. Chyna at the Midcity campus.
I was very nervous ‘cause it wasn’t my first language. And I [was] sitting down with a lot of people who speak so fast and...[Laughs] I was messed up and I was scared to speak. And I got it. I got through.
What do you mean when you say you got through?
Because I take my high school [equivalency test] and I pass it. The first time Ms. Chyna saw me, she said, “Why didn’t you [make] an appointment to take your HiSET because you will pass it?” because she saw that in me, that I would pass it. I didn’t even take too much time in adult ed classes.
And what do you think she saw when she saw you?
She saw a woman who struggled about her life and struggled about the language, your language [Laughs], comes from a another country speaking two foreign languages, who doesn’t speak English but read it, write, understands what she read. So she saw I can pass the HiSET if I understand what I’m reading.
Do you still say that you don’t speak English?
[Laughs] I can say that. Yeah. I always say I don’t speak English. [Laughs] Because people still don’t understand me when I’m talking with my accent! So I still say it.
Does Chyna know that you’ve passed your test?
Yes, because that’s the first person I emailed. I said, “Hey Ms. Chyna, I passed all my scores!” and she was like, in the middle of the night, like, “Yay! Congratulations! I’m so proud of you!”
Can you tell me, what does your dream look like?
I can say...did you watch _____ [inaudible] when you were a little kid? _____ [inaudible]? [Laughs] No? That’s a big thing. I want to help -- I want to touch so many people I can transform my life before I die. I can say that. It looks like a green world, a paradise for me.
My dream job when I [am] a nurse or APR [Advanced Practice Registered Nurse], like I can do [consultations] and everything like that, I can help them understand how dangerous some virus is, how dangerous so many things they eat is. So that’s my dream.
You asked me a question. You said, “Did you see...?”
Can you tell me what this thing is?
[Laughs] The big little dinosaur who educates kids about everything.
Yes. It’s like Barney, you see, when those kids are happy, when they know everything, they know how to ride a bike, how to plant trees...[Laughs].
So help make the connection a little bit more for me: How is Barney related to your dream?
Barney help the children understand when they are sad, if they have something that bothers them on their mind, he help them to understand what’s going on. That’s the same way I wanna help my people who doesn’t understand what’s going on when they become sick.
Like I remember when the cholera hit after the earthquake. People start running (?), even the doctors start running, because they don’t know how to address the situation. So if they had somebody who already knew how to address that... So yeah, you can help them, and help them smile again.
It’s going to sound crazy, but I would go with Doctors Without Borders...
...in the poor countries, like mine, because those people don’t have -- few of them have TV, few of them have internet to learn stuff, few of them... have the right basic hygienic stuff. That’s my plan: help them. Because if I [had learned] how malaria come through your body, I would not have it. I had it. I don’t have malaria when I came here, but I always have fever in my country. If a mosquito bite me -- oh no, I would run straight to the hospital at night. So people need to be educated about certain stuff.
And you’re saying that you have some of the personal experience that would help you for this?
Yes, I have some of it. Because so many times I [had] to drink like four to six pills at once, and I [had] to blend my food. I [couldn’t] chew my food because it’s deadly. So yeah, all my life I have this disease inside of me, so it will help somebody.
[Next semester] I have 12 hours of class to take and 6 hours of adult ed classes.
That’s when I’m going to be 18 hours a week in class for Fall semester. My plan is...like last night before I get off the bus, I was count[ing] how many hours I can get sleep, how many hours I wanna study because [if] I want to be a nurse so [badly], I have to give many time to be where I wanna be.
The class is to prepare you to be a nurse, how to take care of the person, and everything about nursing...
I can say, the basics of nursing assisting. So, I have to give up so many things and give much time, like I know I will have to go to school Monday to Friday, three days college classes Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, and I will be at adult ed Thursday and Tuesday.
And work. [Laughs] Because now I live by myself I have to work to help myself economically. And I’m not driving... So I got a lot of hours to catch up with and save that time. So now I will need the [College & Career Success Skills] book more than ever. More than ever I will apply Ms. Nia’s classes. That’s my plan.
Can you tell me some of the things you’ll be learning in that class?
How to take the vital signs of a patient, how to identify when goes wrong, like if your patient has bedsores. What next? How to [give] good customer service because when you’re working at the hospital, you have to know how to address the person because sometimes the person has pain so hard, and you will be the first one to be in contact with that person. So how to make the person feel [welcome], even though he has something that’s bother [him].
Do you think you’ll be good at that kind of service?
Yeah, I think I will learn a lot and I will do my best to [give] good customer service because it’s not easy. Customer service is not easy because sometimes you can put a big smile on your face and that person still look funny and so mad at you. [Laughs] And so I’m going to do my best.
This class I think involves clinical rotations...
...you’ll actually be working in a nursing home or something like that?
Tell me about that.
It will be a good experience for me because working at the nursing home will be learning who you are, who you really and really are. What kind of person are you? Because you’re going to [be] taking care of somebody who cannot do stuff by themself. Or, somebody who can do a little but needs help.
How you going to do that? How you going to think to take care of the person? I always put in my mind, if you take care of somebody who cannot do stuff by themself, think about your family, like your father or your mom. If somebody did bad stuff, [will] you be happy? That’s how I put it. Think about a family member, how you’d wanna take of that person.
Choose Your Book
I took Career Success Skills class with Ms. Nia and I pass it with an A.
When I step in that class the first day, when she was talking like, she don’t take no excuses, I was like, “Oh my god.” [Laughs] And after that, I become familiar with her way to teach, and I see it was the best way somebody can teach you, to be hard on yourself in life and to respect yourself and others. And she make me learn how to be confident with myself, and everything she was teaching about -- I saw that everyday in my work, at home. Everywhere I pass, I can see that. And I learn and learn and learn and learn and pass.
My second class was Medical [Terminology]. I [wasn’t] scared in that class because it was just like in my country: you just study a book. But with Ms. Nia’s class, no, you study your brain. It’s like a therapist. You’re talking to yourself -- your mind keep running, looking for stuff, looking for more stuff... And every time I read a chapter -- every time I went outside after I read a chapter, it’s like the book followed me everywhere. That was it. And I said, “Okay, now I understand.” [Laughs]
And one thing she said -- like when people say, “Pray, and you will find.” She said, “No, work and you will find.” That’s what I mean when I say the book follow me everywhere. When she was talking about time management, like, you can fail if you don’t manage your time well. So it follow me.
I ask my classmates, “Hey, you just wake up in the middle of the night and say, ‘Wait! Did I complete Ms. Nia’s homework?’”
They said, “No, you’re crazy! What are you talking about?” [Laughs]. It reminds me of what I went through when I went to school in my country.
The only person who doesn’t want me to continue was my husband.
I don’t know why, but he doesn’t want me to. And that’s why I told you, “My books follow me anywhere. Ms. Nia’s class follow me anywhere I go.” [Ms. Nia’s] second rule was like, “If you have three boos, keep the one who’s more caring...and dump the two others.” That’s what she said, “because people are gonna leave you.” And that’s happened to me.
To go back for one second, she says keep the boo who’s more what?
More supportive and more caring, [who] helps you studying, and always asks if you finished your homework, not [one who] wanna hang out all the time. That’s what she said. Keep the one who’s more supportive, and dump the two others because you will not have time for them.
What choice did you make?
I made the choice to stay with my book. That’s the choice I made. I stayed with my book. I study in the middle of the night, wake up early, come to school. Because, you know, in the middle of everything, I still have to struggle with the language, so I have to give time to pass, because I hate failing. If you don’t understand that, I can’t do nothing about it. That was my choice.
If you were at any point going to give wisdom or give a speech to other people considering either being in HiSET classes or going to college like you are, what would you want to tell them?
I would tell them, no matter what happen, choose the best one: choose your book because that’s the one that’s gonna help you. People will look at you and say, “You’re beautiful.” People look at you [and say], “You have a good body.” But what about the brain?
So I would tell them to choose the good one: think about your brain because beautiful don’t put you at a desk, and a good body really don’t put you at a desk. Your brain [can] make you sit down in a nice room. If you like working inside, your brain will put you there. If you like to work outdoors, your brain will put you there. Not your good body or your beautiful person. No. Your brain will put you anywhere you want to be.
So you made the choice to stay with your book. Was that instead of something else?
Yes. Instead [of] stay married. Because, not having any high school diploma even in my country, seeing my classmates, people I grew up with, being somebody -- it’s a shame to see the kid who skipped so many classes because she have higher grades sitting down, not doing nothing. Not even can -- how do I say in English when you have a button on your shirt pull out [and] you have to take a needle and try to fix it? Can’t even fix her own shirt. That’s a shame. You don’t have nothing -- any skills -- or you have it and you’re just sitting down at home [and] don’t know which skills you have yet? That’s not fun at all.
You’re just sitting down at home, fixing the living room, the dining room, see if they have dust. That’s nothing... That can become skills, but if you don’t like performing it, it’s nothing. Yeah, everybody know you can do it, but where is the paper? Not because I didn’t like doing it. Oh yeah, I like doing it, but I always [wanted] more for me. That’s why I stay with my book: to have more, to learn more, and to have more to give back.
In general, how’s it been with your classmates?
We were like a little family. We always look out for each other. We are adults... We all have a history [and] something we struggle with, so we look out for each other.
And, at the [Delgado] Crawfish Fest, I learned something from them [but] they didn’t know that. Because I was going through something and I [learned] something very special from them. We were eating together because that was my first time eating crawfish. And I was like, “It’s my first time. Can somebody show me how to eat that?” [Laughs] And they all come together and they showed me how to eat it, and we take pictures together, and I forgot I have a personal problem that day. I learned something from them: “You don’t know what happen in somebody’s mind, but you can make them laugh.”
I was doing housekeeping when I first came to Ms. Nia’s class.
Turndown Attendant at the Hyatt Regency, the big Hyatt. When I first start, I tell them I can work at 5 to -- like a part-time job because I’m in going to school, and I explain to them how many classes I take, how many hours I need to be able to study. And a new manager came and said if I can’t work 3 o’clock to 11:30, no way she can work with me. And she say, “You have two choices: stay at the job or choose your school.”
And I keep going to the job, and I pass it with a C -- a low score C. And I was thinking, “Okay. I need the money but the money can stay.” You can make money everywhere. You can do anything. I can just go and pick up any job and have some money. But school -- I can’t lose that chance because I did that before: drop out of school and act like a child [playing] housewife. I didn’t go nowhere. All my friends passed [me] by. My brothers and sisters passed [me] by. And I stay the same Cherline -- no degrees, nothing. And that was coming to my mind, and I said, “No, I’m not going to stay at that job. I have to choose between the job and school.” And I chose school.
And when I quit, I begun to have B, and I pass my last test with a A. And I passed the HiSET and passed my college classes at the same time.
Now I’m doing lobby attendant. They work with my schedule. If I put in a request, like I say, “Hey, I have an exam tomorrow. Can I come work like to 3 or to 4?” my manager will say, “Yeah,” because school is first. He understand that.
You Don't Know Who You're Talking To
Sometimes people just stand in front of me talking about me...
...because they think that I don’t speak English CUT because I don’t speak to people if you don’t talk to me. And after they finish talking, I’m like, “How you doin’?”
“Oh no! Maybe she understands us. Maybe not.” [Laughs]
Sometimes I let them know, “I hear you guys clearly. Thank you for saying that.” Or sometimes I just go away and don’t say nothing.
That’s the biggest problem with assuming. We always look at the uniform and we just judge the book by the cover. That’s why I always shut them off and say, “I’m going to college,” because don’t think I’m just cleaning your room or delivering your request if you need amenities or something like that. Hey,somebody has to do it.
Do you tell people you’re a college student?
Everywhere I go. Yes, I tell them every time. When I’m doing a guest request, if the guest’s talking to me [about] where I’m from, because people ask me that all the time because of my accent, and I tell you I’m from Haiti, they say, “Did you [go] back to your country recently?”
And I say, “No, I don’t have a chance because I’m still taking summer classes because I’m going to school. I’m going to college.”
“Oh, where you going?”
And I say, “Delgado Community College.”
“What do go for?”
“Nursing.” Because you will not think I’m only the housekeeper to clean your room or get your guest request. I’m doing that to me some money to leave, but I’m studying.
People, when they hear that you’re from another country, they always tell me that that’s the best choice I can make. That’s why I would tell anyone who asks me -- even if we’re not from the same country, but if you came to America, I would tell you the first step you have to take: “Go to school.”