DOWNTOWN — Like thousands of other students, Catherine-Alice Beauboeuf, 23, enters the University of Illinois this week seeking an engineering degree, but the Harold Washington grad and Near West Side resident already has a lofty goal: helping rebuild her native Haiti.
She didn't plan to end up studying in Urbana-Champaign, but her life changed on Jan. 12, 2010, when she was a freshman in college at Faculte des Sciences and a magnitude 7.0 earthquake devastated her native city of Port-au-Prince, Haiti.
"I was leaving my school when it happened, probably five minutes after I left," she said. "I went back to see my school, and it had collapsed. A lot of houses, a lot of buildings, everything, just everything, was on the floor. And I was speaking to one of my professors in Haiti and he was telling me, 'You always liked to major in engineering — now you know what you're gonna do.'"
Beauboeuf said that was when she knew her "calling" was to earn a degree in civil engineering.
"I was like, 'Yes!' because it would be really helpful, and really great, if I could come here [to Chicago] and get my bachelor's, and then I can move back and try to help my people, and try to rebuild — and help improve — the infrastructure."
Shortly after the earthquake, Beauboeuf left Haiti with her mother, who was transferred from her job in the country's Ministry of Foreign Affairs to the Haitian Consulate in Chicago.
She enrolled at Harold Washington College Downtown in its fast-paced engineering science program, and graduated this spring with an associate's degree and advanced physics prerequisites under her belt.
While there, she racked up a host of awards and scholarships from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, The Coca-Cola Foundation, Coca-Cola Scholars Foundation, the American Association of Community Colleges and Phi Theta Kappa, the community college honors society of which she's a member.
As a member of student government, Beauboeuf successfully lobbied Harold Washington's president, Donald Laackman, to save a payment plan program for international students that the university was threatening to cut.
In two years she hopes to return to Chicago to intern with engineering firms — in part, because she says she loves the city, but also to help build her resume for her return to Haiti.
"I really want to have the best education possible, so that way [clients] can have a little more trust in Haitians," she said. After many buildings in Haiti collapsed during the earthquake, "a lot of people were now skeptical, like, 'OK, I don't know if you're gonna build it right this time.'"
In addition to studying civil engineering, Beauboeuf also hopes to work with the U. of I.'s earthquake research center, "just so I can understand more what happened in Haiti."
"A lot of people died, and I saw a lot of terrible things," during the 2010 earthquake she said.
"But when I look in the bright side, I had the opportunity to come here, and it was always my dream," she said. "If [the earthquake] hadn't happened, I don't think I'd be the person I am today, in terms of maturity, in terms of wanting to help others.
"I see how people are here, how it's all about the community. I want to go back and I want to bring that with me to Haiti," Beauboeuf said.