Twenty Haitian undergraduate students will come to Virginia Tech next year to finish their final year of college while working on internships with Virginia Tech professors.

With Haiti’s universities located almost exclusively in Port-au-Prince, the Jan. 12-earthquake was particularly hard on the country’s institutions of higher learning. According to one study, as many as 200 professors and 6,000 university-level students were killed — the future doctors, teachers, accountants, engineers, agronomists, and business professionals of the country.

Reflecting on these horrific losses, several Virginia Tech professors put their heads together to figure out how they could help. “We asked ourselves: ‘What can we do within the university that can not only help out, but will also serve as a model for other universities across the United States?’” says Patrick Guilbaud, program director of information technology in international education and a faculty sponsor of the program.

What they came up with is a program that will allow 20 Haitian undergraduates in the final stages of their college careers to complete their degrees. The idea is to bridge the gap for students who because of the earthquake have not been able to graduate this year.

Ten students will come to Virginia Tech in the fall, and 10 more will come in the spring 2011 semester. The students, from several different Haitian universities, will work with a professor to create an individualized internship project. At the end of their semester, the students will return to Haiti to graduate from their home institutions.

The internship projects help the students by giving them practical skills which they can then use back in Haiti. For the professors, the projects allow them to further their research interests. In one project, a student will develop a business model for manufacturing a laminated bamboo composite that could replace overhead concrete, a potential boon to the construction industry in Haiti. In another, a student will develop a business model for the construction of low-cost suspension footbridges.

The Haitian students will also serve as resources for the team-taught Honors Colloquium on Haiti, being offered this fall to undergrads.

“In the short-term, the students will be able to graduate, and I hope they’ll be able to contribute to the rebuilding of Haiti,” says Bryan Cloyd, the John E. Peterson, Jr. Professor of Accounting, and a key initiator of the project. “In the long-term, we are creating a network of partners to help the university’s future research and service activities.”

Virginia Tech personnel are working with the nonprofit organization Haitian Education and Leadership Program (HELP), Haiti’s largest university scholarship program, to bring the students to campus. HELP will identify the students, but funding has come from individual contributions. In addition to Guilbaud and Cloyd, 16 other faculty sponsors are involved, representing fields that include watershed management, food security, and biofuels.