SALISBURY, N.C. – Rachelle Colas isn’t your typical benefactor for the poor. In fact, some might even consider her a worthy recipient of assistance. But for Colas, her own childhood struggles growing up in Haiti – including losing her mother in an earthquake – have made her thankful for what she has and inspired her to give to needy children in her native country.
Demarcus Cousar isn’t your typical benefactor, either. In fact, a little over a decade ago he was in prison, just hoping to earn his GED. His vision did not include going to college or becoming someone who focused on giving back to the world. Today, he is a passionate advocate for the homeless and looks for ways to make a positive impact and improve his community.
Both defying the odds in remarkable ways, Colas and Cousar graduated during Rowan-Cabarrus Community College’s commencement ceremonies in May as the College’s 2019 Scholars of Global Distinction. As participants in the North Carolina Global Distinction Initiative (NCGDI), a partnership between community colleges and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, they immersed themselves in a vigorous program to develop global awareness and skills.
“These two students are absolutely incredible, giving, inspirational people,” said Carrie Waldrop, a Rowan-Cabarrus English instructor who works with the Global Distinction program. “They overcame many obstacles and rose to become outstanding students and citizens. We are so proud to say they are graduates of Rowan-Cabarrus Community College.”
Students who participate in the Global Distinction Initiative complete intensive course work, as well as attend special speaking engagements, cultural festivals, film screenings and other events with an international flavor.
Global Distinction students complete a minimum of 30 hours in a domestic intercultural experience and create a project to connect their program experience with their academic and career interests. Upon completion of the program, they have their Global Distinction status noted on their official college transcript, receive a certificate, and may wear special cords during commencement ceremonies.
“I was interested in the program because it offered cultural experiences along with a chance to develop leadership, public speaking, critical thinking and global competency skills – knowledge I will need to be successful in the world,” said Colas, who earned her Associate in Science degree at Rowan-Cabarrus and plans to continue her education to become a pediatric nurse and then a pediatrician.
For her project, Colas saved her own money to buy more than 120 book bags, plus food and drinks, and organized a trip to Haiti last summer to deliver these items and participate in service to needy children.
Growing up in Haiti, she had seen other children on the streets with no sandals, looking sick and hungry. Those images stayed with her, as did the gratitude for the families who came together to take care of her after she lost her mother at age 11.
“Even when I didn’t have anything, I felt like I had everything because someone was always there to take care of me,” said Colas, who moved to the United States with her father in 2016. “People ask me why I used my own money for the project when I don’t have a lot for myself, and my answer is that I have been there and I know how it feels. I’m very thankful every day for what I do have and realize that someone always has it worse.”
This summer, Colas plans to return to Haiti with hundreds more book bags, along with pens, pencils, crayons and other items. In addition to using her own money, she is networking here in the United States to raise funds for the trip and supplies.
Cousar’s experience with the Global Distinction program culminated in a heartfelt 23-minute documentary film on homelessness in his native Cabarrus County.
“I learned that, in my own backyard, there are hundreds of people – including children – who are homeless,” said Cousar, who earned his Associate in Arts degree at Rowan-Cabarrus and plans to continue his education at a four-year university, pursuing a double major in film and marine biology. Ultimately, he would like to direct films that impact audiences across multiple genres.
“It became my purpose to tell the story of the homeless,” he said. “With increased global awareness, I now think with my spirit whenever I see a seemingly desolate stranger beside a store. I have realized they want to be heard by someone, somewhere, but there is no one there to listen for whatever myriad of reasons.”
Cousar plans to travel to Haiti along with Colas this summer to assist in distributing supplies to the people there.
“After learning that the orphanage Rachelle had visited had only one bottle of peroxide and some bandages, I felt compelled to help in any way possible to make an impact,” he said.
“These students are shining examples of starting where you are and going as far as you can go,” said Dr. Carol S. Spalding, Rowan-Cabarrus president. “It warms my heart to see Rachelle and Demarcus immerse themselves in their education here at Rowan-Cabarrus, embracing their experiences and passion to make a difference in the world.”