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Student Draws Strength from Her Heritage
Wendy Francois

When Columbia College sophomore Wendy Francois checks her email, she sifts through the spam looking for emails from Jeb Bush. Yes, the Florida governor, W's younger brother. The two first met when Francois' hometown of Naranja , Florida , was destroyed by Hurricane Andrew in 1992 and the governor visited the recovery effort, in which Francois participated. They met several times again at school functions. Never shy, Francois forged a relationship with Gov. Bush that continues today, one example of the leadership quality that defines her life.

As a student at Homestead High, Francois was varsity captain of the soccer and volleyball teams. She graduated with a perfect GPA, garnered a National Achievement Scholarship and was the class salutatorian. She also found the time to tutor and mentor third-graders, teach a Sunday school class and actively participate in the Kiwanis Key Club, National Honor Society and Haitian Culture Club. A weekly radio show that she founded and produced -- H.Y.T., or Haitian Youth Time -- was broadcast on Radio R.C.H. out of Miami-Dade County .

Awards given in recognition of her activism began to stack up: a Presidential Freedom Scholarship for community service, a Kodak Young Leaders Award for leadership and academic achievement and a Ron Brown scholarship for academic excellence.

Francois also was a participant in The Florida Partnership. Established by The College Board and Gov. Bush, the organization aims to promote educational excellence and equality for Florida middle and high school students and prepare them for successful college experiences. This year, Francois was selected to introduce keynote speaker Edwidge Danticat , BC '90, at the College Board Forum third annual Inspiration Awards luncheon. Danticat, who came to the United States from Haiti in 1981 when she was 12, is a celebrated novelist and shares the same Haitian heritage as Francois.

With so much invested in her community, it's perhaps surprising that Francoise decided to attend college so far away. But Columbia captured her attention and held it. After visiting other colleges, including Yale and Cornell, Francois made a decision. "I chose Columbia because I felt that the school and the city's diversity [were] what I needed at [that] time in my life," she says.

The leadership skills Francois honed in high school are very much in evidence at Columbia . She worked on voter registration drives in the weeks leading up to the presidential election and is a member of Double Discovery Student Organization, a student group that provides tutors and mentors for the University's Double Discovery Center. The center provides an academic enrichment program aimed largely at Harlem youth. Program participants graduate from high school and college at a rate significantly higher than the national average.

Francois attributes her achievements to pride in her Haitian heritage. Although she was born in Miami , her parents were born and raised in Haiti ; and Creole is the primary language spoken at home. In an article that she penned for Haïti Progrès -- a weekly newspaper distributed in New York City; Miami; Ft. Lauderdale, Florida; Boston; Chicago; Washington, D.C.; Philadelphia; Montreal; Ottawa; Paris; and Haiti -- Francois wrote of the need for recognition of the legacy of Haitian achievements: "Hope will be absorbed into the roots that anchor Haitian youth, and dreams will propel them to excel and succeed in spite of financial hardship, family divisions, cultural isolation and all other circumstances."

She is majoring in political science and human rights -- a perfect choice for this natural leader. Francois arrived on campus with the intention of studying medicine, but her activism has led her in another direction. Children's issues, particularly education, have been the focus of her attention. So much so that when she sees newspaper articles about children in Haiti or in other parts of the world, she emails her pal Gov. Bush to advise him. Condoleeza Rice made history recently as the first African American woman nominated to become Secretary of State. With women like Francois in the pipeline, she certainly won't be the last.

Published: Dec 17, 2004
Last modified: Jan 10, 2005

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