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  • John Ryan

Elisson Adrien: "My Journey through Mountains to Education and International Partnerships"

Updated: Nov 5, 2020

Over a couple decades ago, I was born in the most remote mountain region of Haiti, joining a beautiful family of brothers. As the third of four boys, I had the luxury of having older siblings that would care for me when parents were doing everyday activities. Then came time to go to elementary school. Unlike most Haitian children, I was privileged to have a father that knew how to read and write. I took the full benefit of having someone to tutor me, and I excelled in my classes. But, like most of the children in the area, going to school came with the same challenges. During the rainy seasons, the rivers flooded and parents who were able came by the rivers to carry students across. This continues to be one of the memories I will cherish forever. Parents were not there to carry only their children but all young pupils who could not go across the rivers were carried across. Despite all these challenges, I rose to the top of my classes. But the burdens did not stop here.

Middle school was particularly tough. I went to middle school two hours away from my family and classes were held from 7 am to 4 pm. It was the hardest when it rained because I had to carry my uniform in my bag, and I would wash off the mud from myself in an artificial lake that was near the school. If lucky, I could clean at a friend's house that was near the school. Some students from my village moved to live in the closest major town, named Hinche, to be closer to the school. But, my family could not afford the rent in town. The two-hour hike was particularly tough because I was hungry and didn’t know whether I would get something at home. There were some days that I couldn’t make it home because the rivers were high. On those days, I would spend the night in the primary school, and the next morning I would go back to school without making it home. Luckily, generous people would sometimes give me some dinner (better than what I would have gotten at home). Even through all these challenges, there was not a day that I thought about quitting, because I knew that education was a necessary step to prosperity and impact on the world. I was helped in my journey by some of my most important acquaintances that have helped me accomplish many things.

In 2004, my parish partnered with a church in Memphis, TN through the Parish Twinning Program of the America (PTPA). Parishioners from Memphis would come to my hometown of Layaye about twice a year. Unable to communicate with them, I decided to practice English more and enrich my vocabulary. By the end of middle school in 2007, I was able to hold conversations in English with the Americans when they visited. During that relationship, they watched me grow up from a boy to a young man. After middle school, I earned an academic scholarship at the most prestigious high school in the town of Hinche. Unfortunately, I could not attend because my parents were not able to pay the rent for me to move to town. So, I stayed in the rural high school for my first year. During the second year, a friend of mine who knew that I wanted to go to high school in Hinche asked me to watch over a house for them because they were moving to the national capital of Port-au-Prince. They promised I could stay there to finish high school if I wanted. I was overwhelmed by the blessing! But, tragedy would hit during that sophomore year. 

On March 18, 2008, my mother passed away suddenly from an unknown illness. Without explanation, my father left town forever later that day. Still now, I cannot comprehend how I lost both my parents on the same day. 

My brothers and I suffered a lot, but God has always had His own plans for us. During my junior year, my younger brother came to live with me and started middle school at the public school in Hinche. I remember the meager times when we relied on the kindness of neighbors to have something to eat. I would get the food from these neighbors and leave it for Lenes, my younger brother. I would then eat with my classmate, whom I tutored. In spring of my junior year, I skipped a couple weeks of school and went to the Dominican Republic with a group of young men from Layaye loading and unloading cement to earn money for my expenses. But, these challenges did not prevent me from doing well, and I always earned one of the top three spots in my classes. 

In 2010, I was a senior in high school when my life changed, and I met John McGreevy. As a senior in High school, I knew enough English to work as an interpreter and guide for English speakers in Haiti. As an interpreter and guide for John, I was introduced to a friendship that would teach me more about my abilities and potential. That was my introduction to the world of research and the possibility of further education. During our work together, the devastating 2010 earthquake hit and destroyed everything in Port-au-Prince. We bonded through the experience, and John, seeing my dedication and potential told me he would help fight to help me enter the school in which he was enrolled, Elon University. 

After he left, we kept in touch via email and Facebook. Despite various disturbances in my studies, I graduated high school 3rd in my class. John came back to Haiti to do research for his master degree on culturally specific uses of trees in Haiti. I was lucky to be able to work with him once again, fueling once more my love for research and international partnerships. As the sole English speaker in the village, I also served as intermediary between my church and IC Haiti Ministry (, and I advised them on how to approach cultural differences. In Hinche, I co-founded Happy Haitian Productions Institute (HHPI), a school for underprivileged children and young adults wanting to learn English (

In 2012, I received my acceptance letter and was awarded a full scholarship from Elon University. I was overjoyed. In January 2013, I went to University of Arkansas at Little Rock to acquire the sufficient English skills that would allow me to succeed academically. I spent the Spring 2013 semester there, and I enrolled at Elon in the Fall of 2013.

Elon changed my life. I got to meet some of the most incredible people that I know. I had the chance to do a research internship at the prestigious Anne Arundel Medical Center in Annapolis, MD, looking at the effect of patient portal on patients’ health. Above all, I had the privilege of conducting my own research in the medicinal uses of plants in rural Haiti. I graduated from Elon with a Bachelor of Science in Biology (pre-Med) in the class of 2017. 

I then returned to Haiti and enrolled at Quisqueya University to study medicine, hopefully bringing medical care and medically based research to my hometown. After losing my mother from what was likely a preventable illness, I want to contribute to improve medical care in rural Haiti. But, political unrest and the COVID-19 pandemic have currently halted my studies.

Research has been a big part of my academic and personal life experience. For the past 8 years, I have done my own research, and I have worked in the background for many research projects either as translator, interviewer, guide, and/or research partner. I have worked with public health researchers from the university of Memphis in numerous research projects as translator and research guide, and I worked with undergraduate researchers from Elon University studying the experience of Haitian immigrants in Miami (learn more Here and Here).

I have been working with John McGreevy for the past 8 years in research projects on human-environmental interaction and disaster vulnerability. I presented my research at Elon University, co-presented the preliminary findings of John’s doctoral research at the Haitian Studies Association conference in 2018, and continue to contribute spreading lessons we learned through research across Haiti. John and I are currently crafting articles on local adaptation to disasters that we plan on submitting to regional and international academic journals.

Combining my education, research training, and interdisciplinary field experience, I am entering a new stage of my journey. I hope to improve understanding of the many facets that produce disease vulnerability and threaten rural Haitian families, like my own. As I search for PhD programs in Medical Anthropology, I hope to expand my education one step further and produce applied research findings that will influence knowledge and improve the lives of others. 

To learn more about my various projects and my ongoing journey, contact me at

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