She Survived the Haiti Earthquake. Now, She’s a College Freshman.

August 31, 2016

Tiles of a grand mosaic — bright, sharp, and richly textured — are shifting into shape now on college campuses from Brighton to Amherst, Cambridge to Cape Cod.

Minivans and U-Hauls are packed with bedspreads, backpacks, and mini-fridges — and bringing anxious freshman who stand on one of life’s most important thresholds as butterflies dance somewhere deep within them.

By this weekend, that wonderful mosaic will slip into final form, depicting hundreds of thousands of rich tales of triumphs achieved, tragedies overcome, perseverance rewarded.

Evaudie Paul (pictured on the right) has earned her place among those multicolored tiles.

Her story begins six years ago, when tectonic plates along a fault that runs from Jamaica to the southern part of Haiti shifted horizontally, scraping against each other. And then the world around her began to violently shake.

“I was doing my math homework and watching a soap opera with a friend,’’ Evaudie told me on Monday morning. “We started running and while we were running the bricks were just falling. When I got out, my aunt’s house collapsed. People died. They put the corpses outside.’’

The earthquake that struck Haiti on Jan. 12, 2010, was the nation’s worst in more than 200 years. The government estimated that 300,000 people perished in the 7.0 magnitude quake.

As she recalled those terrible moments, sitting in a small conference room at Stonehill College here where her academic career as a biochemistry major began on Tuesday, Evaudie Paul’s eyes overflowed with tears. She asked for a moment to compose herself. And then she told me how that terror shaped her life.

“I want to help people,’’ she said. “We didn’t have any doctors or anyone who could help those in need, those who were injured. I felt really helpless. I knew those people. They had lived around me.’’

She was just 11, a sixth-grader at an all-girls Catholic school outside of Port-au-Prince, when the earthquake struck. She is the youngest of three children and the only daughter of a mother who taught first-graders and an accountant dad.

After her parents’ divorce, she came to the United States as a 14-year-old, settling in Brockton.

“In school, it was hard for me because I didn’t know the language,’’ she said. “It was hard for me to make friends and talk to people. The only place I really liked — I know this sounds like I’m a nerd — was being in the classroom. When it was time for lunch, it would be very difficult for me. I would go to the bathroom and stay and not eat.’’

Yes, the classroom became her sanctuary — and her proving ground. She worked to break out of her shell, joining the French club and volunteering at local hospitals. And, gradually, she rose to the top of her class at Brockton High School, where she graduated with a 4.1 grade point average.

In a reversal of roles, she became in some respects a parent for her mom, who does not speak English. When it came time to apply for financial help, she filled out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid herself. Anyone who has struggled with that confounding form knows she deserves college credit for that feat alone.

When she first toured Stonehill with her mother last year, she fell in love with the place. It was expensive and seemed out of reach. A $5,000 scholarship from HarborOne Bank helped. Other aid was secured.

On Tuesday, she formally joined 734 other members of the Stonehill class of 2020. She’s competitive, determined to excel, and wants what all freshman want: A rich, full college experience.

“I’m nervous,’’ she said. “I just want to do so well that it scares me.’’

There is poisonous speech all around us in this political season about the perils of immigration, massive deportations, and the construction of a great wall on the Mexican border.

Evaudie Paul doesn’t want to talk about any of that. She’s too busy making new friends at Stonehill.

She’s busy, too, dreaming of returning to Haiti one day, where she can imagine her life as Dr. Paul, Haiti’s newest minister of health.