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EOP, Communication Disorders and Sciences Helps Student Find His Voice, See His Future

People of Plattsburgh

jean-baptiste, jerry in front of hawkins

Photo of Jerry Jean-Baptiste by Felicia Krieg

Jerry Jean-Baptiste remembers well the catastrophic 7.0 earthquake that hit his home country of Haiti a dozen years ago.

One minute the nine-year-old was with his siblings and parents heading home; the next he was buried under rocks as the building they were in collapsed around them.

“After being buried for around seven hours, I was saved by a passing pedestrian that heard me desperately screaming,” he told a group of students, faculty and North Country donors at the recent SUNY Plattsburgh Lunch with Scholars event in honor of scholarship recipients. His father, who was getting ready to leave work at the time, and three of his siblings perished in the quake.

He immigrated to the United States soon after.

A New Home in Brooklyn

After fleeing Haiti, Jean-Baptiste, his mother and his brother moved to Brooklyn to be close to relatives there. He said attending public school in his new home presented a challenge since the native French speaker had to learn English and adjust to American culture simultaneously.

Despite all the pain he experienced, “I always try to use my story as a way to keep going when things get hard,” Jean-Baptiste said.

He said he had a stutter as a child, one of the life experiences that guided him toward the major he declared as an incoming first-year student, communication sciences and disorders.

“I always say speech pathology chose me,” Jean-Baptiste said. “I know what it feels like to not want to communicate and what it feels like to not have your voice be heard.”

Life wasn’t easy for his family after leaving Haiti, he said during Lunch with Scholars. They often moved in search of more affordable apartments when his mother could not afford the rent.

“I have experienced the feeling of not knowing where my next meal will come from,” he said.

‘EOP Unlocked College Access’

The SUNY Plattsburgh Educational Opportunity Program was transformative in helping him gain access to a college education in the first place as a first-generation student, Jean-Baptiste said. He said he mainly selected SUNY Plattsburgh because the college offered the most generous financial aid package, including the Kyla J. Relaford Memorial Scholarship and the Lynne White Scheider Memorial Scholarship.

When he arrived on campus in 2019 for the EOP Summer Institute, Jean-Baptiste said he wasn’t sure he could succeed in college.

“I had a lot of self-doubt,” he said. “I did not know my potential.”

But he found a mentor in Dr. Michael Morgan, professor of communication sciences and disorders, who he met at a small departmental gathering his first month of college, Jean-Baptiste said.

An ‘Amazing Spirit’

Morgan and other faculty and staff highlight Jean-Baptiste’s infectious positivity, charisma and insightfulness.

“I always looked forward to him walking into class because he exuded an amazing spirit,” Morgan said. “My face always lit up when Jerry walked into the room.”

Morgan first taught Jean-Baptiste in an anatomy and physiology of speech and hearing mechanisms course, which Morgan described as one of the most challenging classes in the major.

“I was so interested in learning about the brain, learning the anatomical structures that are related to speech and hearing,” Jean-Baptiste said.

Tutor and Community Advocate

He finished the semester with the highest GPA in his class, Morgan said. That scholastic success led to a job at the Claude J. Clark Learning Center, tutoring students in his major.

Jean-Baptiste is also a community advocate for the Office of Campus Housing and Community Living.

“I was involved in residential life and helping students feel at home,” he said. “That made me love Plattsburgh more because, thinking when I was a freshman, how my CA made me feel and giving that to others has influenced my journey.”

Treating Patients Like Family

Another challenging family experience clarified for Jean-Baptiste the clinical work setting he wanted to pursue, he said. In 2020 his uncle, Legrand Grandoit, had a stroke and was hospitalized in New York City. Grandoit’s speech and memory improved as he worked with a speech-language pathologist.

“The hospital is (for the) most of the vulnerable populations but I just know it is where my heart is,” Jean-Baptiste said. “I would be able to treat each patient as if they were my family members, my mom, my grandma.”

Internship Solidified Love for Field

jerry jean-baptist in scrubsFor nine weeks over the summer of 2022, he completed a full-time speech-language pathology internship at New York-Presbyterian Lower Manhattan Hospital. He said working in the intensive care and medical-surgical units confirmed that he was on the right career path.

“It solidified my love for speech-language pathology as a whole,” he said. “The stuff we do as speech-language pathologists — we change lives. I just know that I’m going to be making an impact, which is the most important thing to me.”

EOP Counselors ‘Guide and Support’

Jean-Baptiste said he benefitted from the caring nature of college EOP counselors throughout his college career.

“I always have someone to go to,” he said. “EOP was just always there to help me, guide me and support me and give me resources that I didn’t even know exist and help me reach my full potential.”

Cassie Joseph, director of EOP at SUNY Plattsburgh, said beyond a focus on academics, Jean-Baptiste is always looking for opportunities to grow.

“He embodies what it means to be EOP by being a leader and mentor for his peers,” Joseph said. “Jerry has overcome a tremendous amount of hardship and has used all the challenges and obstacles as a means of motivation.”

‘Strength and Determination’

Jean-Baptiste also made an impression on Dr. Ashley Gambino, associate professor and chair of communication sciences and disorders.

“He is always engaged and excited to learn course material. Instructors can always count on Jerry to participate and be attentive,” Gambino said. “He brings a great positive energy to the classroom and the program in general.”

Jean-Baptiste is applying to speech-language pathology graduate programs, including the master’s program at SUNY Plattsburgh. His ultimate goal is to get his doctorate in the field someday, something Morgan supports.

“Jerry is one of the strongest students I have ever had, academically and in character,” he said. “It takes a very special person to rise above unthinkable tragedy with the strength and determination he possesses.”

— By Assistant Director of Communications Felicia Krieg

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