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The 30 Top Thinkers Under 30: The Former Community College Student Teaching English to Children Everywhere

We canvassed the world of the social and behavioral sciences, looking for rising stars whose careers promise to make a lasting mark. We'll be profiling the top 30 throughout the month of April.


(Illustration: Graham Smith)

(Illustration: Graham Smith)

Carolina Tavárez grew up in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, the daughter of missionaries. Her mother, a pharmacist, worked alongside doctors to give free and low-cost treatments to people who couldn’t afford medicine, especially Haitian immigrants.

“From an early age,” Tavárez says, “I was exposed to the work my parents did. I became familiar with poverty, lack of education, poor public health, and lack of medication.”

When Tavárez was 13, her family immigrated to Indianapolis. Though English was hard for her—“I found myself lost in translation,” she says—she graduated from high school at 16, with honors. After going to community college, she worked as a nurse assistant for a year, then transferred to the University of California-Davis, where she excelled.

During college, she was named a McNair scholar, won the chancellor's award for excellence in undergraduate research, was honored as U.C. Davis’s top graduating woman, and received the school’s Outstanding Community Service Award in 2013. In 2014, she spoke at the university’s TEDx conference. Last fall, she interned at Harvard’s School of Global Health and Medicine.

"A life will never be the same after someone has exposed it to the magical power of education. If I can impact one life, then the domino effect will take action, reaching more students than I could have ever imagined."

With her McNair money, Tavárez headed back to the Caribbean to do research for her thesis. She also started a non-profit. It grieved her that most of Haiti’s 10 million people live on less than $1 per day, and that 90 percent of its schools are private, which means that the vast majority of parents can’t afford to educate their children. Consequently, less than half of Haitian adults can read and write.

Tavárez’s non-profit, Ann Prepare Lavni (Haitian Creole for "Let us prepare the future"), provides free classes to teach children both English and Spanish, the goal being to help young Haitians graduate from high school and possibly even go to college.

“Every student’s story transformed my view of social justice,” she says. “Their struggles and victories helped me to think outside my comfort zone and to seek doable solutions. APL is my first step into the global change I wish to create.”

Eventually, Tavárez hopes to run multiple chapters in Haiti, and also in Africa, China, and India. “APL can create a place,” she says, “where young thinkers from all over the world come and work together as research assistants or interns.”

“I serve with endless passion,” she says. “A life will never be the same after someone has exposed it to the magical power of education. If I can impact one life, then the domino effect will take action, reaching more students than I could have ever imagined.”

While Tavárez was doing humanitarian work, she was also doing research. Research, in fact, that led her to detect a new language emerging in the Haitian border city of Anse-à-Pitres. Tavárez dubbed it “Kreñòl,” since it melds Haitian Creole and Dominican Spanish, and started studying it.

In general, Tavárez studies how a language’s use can improve its society. “It’s not enough to only speak the language,” she says. “One must submerge herself in the culture to appreciate its background and the influence it has on the world”—which is why Tavárez has spent months living in rural Haiti. “Once familiar with the language’s background,” she explains, “we can then better understand why the people who speak a certain language act the way they do.”

When Tavárez first visited Anse-à-Pitres, she saw herself in each of her students. She recognized their look of anxiety when they didn’t understand what was being said. It made her want to devote her life to helping students learn languages that will help them succeed. “They motivated me to study, in depth,” she says, “the path our brain goes through in order to think, act, and respond in different languages.”

So far, Tavárez’s studies show that young Haitians who learn both English and Spanish are economically better off, more cognitively developed, and more culturally aware. (In Haiti, French is the default language of instruction, though most children’s language of comfort is Haitian Creole.) She has also found that linguistic hurdles impact how Haiti and the Dominican Republic interact fiscally and socially as nations.

Her academic work aside, Tavárez says, “I know what my purpose is in life—to serve and advocate for my community. I have learned that this can be accomplished in so many ways. There is no single or perfect way to do so.”

In her free time, she spends time at the beach—“to just look at, smell, and listen to the ocean and the sky.” She also plays piano, making up songs in different languages. She mentors young people at her church, helping them seek answers. “I also enjoy organizing and re-arranging things,” she says, “and when the time allows it, I like to let my mom comb my hair, like when I was a little girl.”

Two tenets guide her life: The Haitian proverb Sonje lapli ki leve mayi ou (“Remember the rain that made your maze grow”) and Romans 12:21, “Overcome evil with good.”

“Being kind,” she says, “helps me concentrate on what is good.”

We’ll be publishing profiles of this year’s list of the 30 top thinkers under 30 throughout the month of April. Visit this page every day to read about another young person who is making an impact on the social, political, and economic issues we make it our mission to cover every day at Pacific Standard.

A version of this year’s list is also available to subscribers as a feature in our May/June print issue. For more from Pacific Standard on the science of society, and to support our work, sign up for our email newsletter and subscribe to our bimonthly magazine. Digital editions are available in the App Store (iPad) and on Zinio (Android, iPad, PC/MAC, iPhone, and Win8), Amazon, and Google Play (Android).