January 22, 2010 — University of Virginia graduate student Stephanie Jean-Charles was a smart, idealistic young woman passionately committed to lifting others up, with an inner strength and warmth that touched hundreds in the U.Va. community.
She was poised to realize her long-term goal of improving the quality of education in her native Haiti, which added a cruel irony to her death on Jan. 12 at home in Haiti during the catastrophic earthquake, said politics professor Robert Fatton, one of more than a dozen speakers who fondly – and tearfully – reflected on Jean-Charles' life Thursday evening during a memorial service that brought more than 300 people to the Newcomb Ballroom.
In one of her fall classes in U.Va.'s Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy, Jean-Charles – who earned her undergraduate degree in French and foreign affairs from the University in May – did a "beautiful" research project on Haiti's education system, after having spent a summer working at the Education Development Center in Haiti, said her professor, Michael Moore.
"When I heard the horrible news of Stephanie's passing, a profound sadness engulfed me," said Fatton, choking back tears. "But soon afterward, I became angry at our impotence to do anything about it, and angry at seeing the young and promising life brutally cut short by 20 seconds of nature's rage. Stephanie was just too young and too full of life to die. She had just begun to make her mark, and we had glimpsed the wonderful woman she'd become.
"She had touched us all. Her death breaks our hearts."
Faced with the loss of someone so young, Maurice Apprey, dean of the Office of African-American Affairs, recalled something he was told when he lost one of his own children. "When you lose someone this young, God wants her elsewhere to continue her work."
Although Jean-Charles had just begun to tackle improving education in Haiti, she had already made an impact on hundreds in the U.Va. community during her four-plus years here. Some of her impact came through her personal example.
Coming to U.Va. from a French-speaking high school in Haiti, Jean-Charles tackled her first immersion in an English-speaking world on top of adapting to a new culture and the leap from high school to college. Initially, she struggled academically, earning a 2.8 grade-point average in her first semester. But she believed in hard work, she explained in her application to the Batten School, and steadily raised her GPA, earning a 3.7 for the fall 2007 semester.
By all accounts, Jean-Charles was a dedicated and talented student. She was "so foolish" that she read everything her teachers assigned, joked her cousin, Genevieve Rene. (Rene and Jean-Charles's uncle, William Dennery, expressed thanks to those gathered for the "beautiful memorial service" on behalf of the Jean-Charles family, who were unable to travel from Haiti, but will receive a video recording of the service.)
Moore discovered her dedication on the first day of his Batten School class, when she asked questions about some inconsistencies in the assigned readings, readings he hadn't yet read carefully himself, he said to a laugh.
"Stephanie had an ability to see things in the abstract, better than just about any student I can remember. She was great at connecting the dots," he said.
While Jean-Charles' tenacity undoubtedly inspired others, she also impacted others with her selflessness. Just two weeks after arriving at U.Va., Jean-Charles volunteered through U.Va.'s Peer or Mentoring Program to help any student who needed tutoring in French, explained Sylvia Terry, recently retired from her post as associate dean in the Office Of African-American Affairs.
Terry was thrilled when Jean-Charles later applied to become an adviser in the program. As an adviser from her second year onward (soon becoming a senior adviser), Jean-Charles became a mentor to dozens of students. "Stephanie poured her heart into her advisees," Terry said; she couldn't wait to take them under her wings, encourage and nourish them, and help each succeed at U.Va.
"She was one of most caring and thoughtful people I've met in my life," said Tom Olszewski, a fellow student in the master's in public policy program. "We can all learn from her drive, her compassion and her hopeful outlook on life."
"After talking to her, you felt armed and ready to take on the world," said Sarah Williamson, one of Jean-Charles' advisees who graduated in 2009. "She really believed in her friends. Whenever you were plagued with doubt, she sowed so much belief in you, there was no way you couldn't believe in yourself. She was wise beyond her years."
Jean-Charles' personal strength and concern for others made her a "go-to" person on Grounds, said several of her friends and advisees.
More than one wondered aloud how she could be so supportive while also juggling her studies, a part-time job as an office assistant in the Engineering School and involvement in several extracurricular activities, including the Black Voices student gospel choir (which sang twice during the memorial), the Student Organization for Caribbean Awareness, Madison House, the French House and the Day in the Life program.
After her acceptance to the Batten School's master's in public policy program, she soon created the "Batten Buddies" program to pair up second-year MPP students to welcome and mentor incoming first-year MPP students.
In honor of her life of service to others, the Seven Society made a $7,000 gift to the Office of African-American Affairs to assist one student for each of the next seven years in traveling abroad for community service, Terry announced.
The Batten School is creating a scholarship fund in Jean-Charles' name that will provide funding in the future to help Batten students pursue service internships, volunteer work or social entrepreneurship, Dean Harry Harding announced.
Jean-Charles would have earned her Master of Public Policy degree this May. Pending expected approval by the Batten School faculty council and U.Va.'s General Faculty Council, the Batten School will posthumously award Jean-Charles her MPP at commencement in May, Harding said.
Several of the speakers at the memorial suggested that the community can remember and honor Jean-Charles by following the example of her life. Some may wish to carry on her efforts through service or donations to Haiti, but Jean-Charles' legacy is more multifaceted than that, Moore said.
"We will see Stephanie every time we see someone put his or her heart and mind to work pursuing their dreams, trying so hard to make the world a better place. ... To keep her dreams alive, you can do the exact same thing she did: go out into the world every single day filled with joy and grace and dignity and boundless energy and selfless love for everyone and everything around you. Work hard to build your own dreams and the dreams of others."