NEW YORK — Every payday, Jeff Paul sent whatever dollars he could spare to his mother and little brother back home in Haiti. They've become even more desperate since the Jan. 12 earthquake, compounded by thieves, destroyed his mother's business; they had to sleep in the streets of Port-au-Prince before a relative took them in.
"There's no food, they don't have money," said Paul, a part-time security guard and sophomore at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn. "Therefore, on my part, if I don't do as much as I can do, it's like I'm a devil. ... I was there, I been there, I know what it look like when somebody don't eat."
For Paul and hundreds of other Haitian college students in the United States, the past few weeks have been a torment as they've viewed the devastation from afar, waiting to learn if their relatives in Haiti survived and how they're coping.
Some who may have considered leaving school to return home are daunted by the conditions in Haiti. And some have heard from their families that they should stay where it's safe and where they can do the one thing that could make a difference in the future — get an education.
"That's real hard for me," said Mario Calixte, 26, an international student majoring in computer science at Virginia Tech. His parents lost their home in Port-au-Prince.
"I cannot spend a day without thinking about how I can help them," Calixte said. "Seeing that I am helpless, it's killing me."
It's frustrating for the students knowing that joining their families wouldn't help and could even add to the strain.
"There's nothing in Haiti for a computer science major," said Jennifer Francois, 23, another Virginia Tech student from Haiti. She said she would only be a burden as her parents and two sisters try to rebuild their partially collapsed home.
"They have to have money to feed me, and they don't have it right now," she said.
Mixon Brown, 24, a nursing student at Rockland Community College in Suffern, N.Y., was with his family in Haiti when the quake hit and returned to New York 13 days later to the three-year program he began in August. His family home, a few hours from Port-au-Prince, is now full of relatives from the city — relatives his family will try to feed off the meager living his father makes as a farmer.
"If I am here, they will have more hope," he said. "They believe in education, and know when someone studies in America they really can find jobs. ... They would be glad because they feel I can help them."
Since the earthquake, these students have become more determined to finish their studies, seeing in their degrees the promise of jobs with incomes higher than they could get without higher education. With responsibility in the future to care for many more people than before, that income is more important than ever.
About 850 Haitians study as international students at American colleges and universities, according to the Institute of International Education, a nonprofit advocacy organization that tracks international students in the U.S. More are students like Paul, either permanent residents or American citizens whose parents still live in Haiti.
Patrick Guilbaud, who directs Francois' program at Virginia Tech and himself Haitian, stressed the importance of Francois and other students staying and completing their educations instead of leaving school to return to their families or trying to find jobs in hopes of earning money in the short-term.
"There's nothing for them to go back to," he said, since the country's infrastructure needs rebuilding. "They would not be useful going back right now. It really makes a lot more sense for them to strengthen their academic training."
The Institute of International Education has set up a grant program to help Haitian international students with financial difficulties caused by the earthquake.
"Unless you have extraordinary skills that are really needed right now, you should stay here and you should get the skills you need to help in the reconstruction," advises Peggy Blumenthal, the institute's chief operating officer.
The students' families in Haiti also are encouraging them to stay in school, the students say.
"When I talk to them, they say to me I don't need to be worried, they have hope the situation will change," Calixte said.
"They say to me, 'Stay where you are, get a good education, get a good job.' "
Edner Paul, a 17-year-old freshman studying math and economics at MIT, came to the U.S. with his mother to attend high school. Paul, who's not related to Jeff Paul, knows he'll be able to do more for his father and siblings in Haiti by staying school and getting his degree.
And he's committed to that goal, now more than ever.
"I'm going to work harder than I did before," he said.