Cost-Benefit Ratio: Conor Bohan ’91

By Zachary Block '99 / September / October 2003
June 22nd, 2007
One day in October 1996, Conor Bohan stepped through the trash-strewn dirt streets and over the open sewers of Cité Soleil, a teeming slum on the harbor in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, to visit a promising former student at the Catholic high school where he was teaching. The student, Isemonde Joseph, asked Bohan if he would give her thirty dollars to attend secretarial school. Bohan briefly considered Joseph’s request, but declined. She was too bright, he thought, to waste her talents typing and answering phones.

Instead, Bohan offered to sponsor Joseph’s lifelong dream of becoming a doctor. Bohan covered Joseph’s tuition—just over $1,000 for a year of medical school—with his $200 monthly stipend from his job and a little help from his parents.

Bohan realized many similar students could never afford the tuition to attend college, so the next year, he offered scholarships to two or three additional students. The year after that he expanded his search for top students throughout Port-au-Prince and the surrounding area. In his free time, Bohan began soliciting friends and other family members for scholarship donations and set up a small committee to award the money. As the number of students expanded, Bohan dubbed the organization H.E.L.P., the Haitian Education & Leadership Program. This year the program sponsored twenty-eight undergraduate and graduate students, making H.E.L.P. Haiti’s largest university scholarship program, according to Bohan. “For the cost of one Brown diploma H.E.L.P. can offer thirty-five kids the opportunity to basically fulfill their potential,” he says.

H.E.L.P.’s success, meanwhile, brought new challenges. By 2002, Bohan and the program’s board of directors were faced with the dilemma of either freezing the number of scholarships or raising the money to hire a professional staff. Bohan, who was hoping to return to the United States, also feared the program would collapse without him. In April, H.E.L.P. won an $80,000 grant from the London-based Rausing Trust to hire its first full-time executive director and to double the number of scholarship students. The money will also be used to open a small office and computer center and to improve student support.

Bohan, who now works to strengthen democratic institutions in Haiti as the deputy director of the local office of the National Democratic Institute, hopes H.E.L.P. will produce some of the doctors and lawyers the country desperately needs. “It’s not like I was here to save the world,” he says, “but I saw an opportunity where a little investment could reap a huge benefit.”


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