PROFILES IN LEADERSHIP | Nova Southeastern University Professor, Harvard Graduate Uses Education to Empower Students in South Florida and Haiti By Josie Gulliksen | Legacy South Florida Education Issue

As a Haitian woman and mother, educator, psychologist and researcher, Dr. Charlene Desir utilizes her multifaceted life and career to empower and affect change in her students’ and youngsters’ lives.

“I learned from personal experience how to support students in a very personal way,” said Desir, who holds a master’s in school psychology and also education from Tufts University as well as a Ph.D. in learning and teaching from Harvard University. “Coming from a single-family home and a working-class family has allowed me to showcase my successes as a model in the classroom.”

Born in Haiti and raised in Boston, she recalls growing up spending summers with her grandmother in Haiti, a tradition she has continued with her 19-year-old son. 

“My grandmother sent me to Haiti every other summer so I would know my home country and I send my son every summer as well like she did with me,” she said.

Accepted into the Harvard doctoral program at 25 years old after working as a school psychologist for several years brought about a change in her.

  “I was a practitioner living in a Haitian environment in North Miami Beach and switching to school at Harvard in a doctoral program in education made me change sociologically,” she said.  “It allowed me to teach my students how to shift into being a researcher and learning the social context of being a researcher in education.” 

This approach allows her to create a close, personal relationship with her students, mirroring the one she had with the chairperson from her doctorate program. 

“My students actually train me in teaching them. One student in particular who was part of my research team while my student and who I mentored after she graduated eventually hired me as a consultant and we still have an extraordinarily strong relationship,” she said. 

Desir, an honoree of Legacy’s Top Black Educator Award of 2021, was actually nominated by one of her students. 

Outside of her academic career, Desir established a summer camp in Haiti seven years ago. The seed for the program was planted when she began following a group of 30 Haitian youngsters who arrived in the United States in middle school. She documented their school years until their senior year in high school, realizing an average of only five made it to college. 

“These students were my teachers and were part of a larger research study at Harvard. Ultimately, I knew I needed to give back, so I received a grant intending to begin an academic and psychosocial literacy program in Haiti, which has also grown to include my non-profit, the Empowerment Network Global also known as Ten Global,” she said. 

Her personal journey when entering the academy has also made her stronger both personally and professionally. “As a doctorate candidate you have to really ground yourself in the academy and be very purposeful in terms of your contribution,” she said. “It was my responsibility to be consistent with my agenda. Once I was professor of the year and then became a full professor, this gave the institution confidence to let me contribute to the research I wanted to do.”

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