On Jan. 12, 2010, everything changed for Sybille Polynice.
She was a typical 17-year-old high school student in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Her grades were good. She had plans to go on to a local college.
But about 5 p.m. that evening, the family home collapsed. Polynice and her mother were the only family members who survived.
Haiti was rocked by a massive earthquake, a 7.0 on the Richter scale. The earthquake killed more than 230,000 people — including her 22-year-old brother, Jean-Pierre; her 16-year-old sister, May-lissa; and her father, Leslie — and left more than a million people without homes.
That day began an odyssey that leads to her graduating with honors Friday from Southern University. Her mother, Rose-May, has come to Baton Rouge from Haiti to share the moment.
“It means a lot to me,” Polynice, 21, said of graduation day. “I know my mom is really proud of me, and I’m really proud of myself too.”
Polynice was at a dance class the day of the earthquake.
“The day it happened, I didn’t know what to do,” she said. “Every parent came to pick up their children from dance school, but no one came to get me.”
For a day, she and her mom held out hope that her father, sister and brother were still alive, trapped under the rubble. But, it soon became clear they had not survived.
Polynice and her mother stayed with her aunt in Haiti for a couple of weeks before moving to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, where she finished her senior year.
Her mother returned to Haiti because she didn’t have a green card. Polynice enrolled at Southern University, where her uncle works.
But she wasn’t fluent in the language. What little English she spoke, she learned from watching movies.
Polynice laughs now reflecting on how difficult it was to understand people in Louisiana, at first, because of their accents and frequent use of slang.
“When I came to Louisiana, I wasn’t able to understand anything,” Polynice said. “It was worse than when I was in Florida. I had to ask everyone to repeat everything.”
Her mother has been a source of inspiration and strength.
“It’s been very difficult, but my mom helped me,” Polynice said. “I saw how strong she was, and I didn’t want to ever disappoint her and tell her that I wanted to give up on everything. She encouraged me to keep going.”
Patrick Carriere, Polynice’s uncle and associate dean of Southern’s College of Engineering, said the first year was the hardest for his niece. She would become very reserved on family members’ birthdays or on the anniversary of the earthquake.
But she remained focused on her school work, he said.
“The beginning was very rough for her; she was having to overcome all of those challenges,” Carriere said. “Can you imagine losing three members of your family?”
Carriere said Polynice spoke to her mother almost daily.
“By the grace of God, she was able to make it, and with the love of her mother,” Carriere said. “They were like a team.”
Polynice said she didn’t know what she wanted to study when she got to college but has landed in computer science, which is what her older brother studied before he died.
She’s graduating with a 3.6 grade-point average and has been accepted into Southern University’s master’s program.
Polynice said she never imagined she would end up in Louisiana but has taken an unexpected liking to Baton Rouge. She is even considering staying in the area after she finishes her master’s and applying at IBM.
“I like the food here and the people here, and I’ve made some friends,” Polynice said. “People are curious about my country.”
She visits Haiti every chance she gets and will be going back soon for the summer. The country is still recovering and making a lot of progress, she said.
“When people think of Haiti, they think of poverty and things like that,” she said. “But that’s not all of it. It’s very pretty in some places, and there’s great beaches.”
The commencement ceremony is slated for 10:30 a.m. at the F.G. Activity Center on Southern University’s campus. U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu is the keynote speaker.
Polynice said there were many times she was overcome with grief by her losses and wanted to give up. But she credits her mother and her family in Baton Rouge for helping her succeed.
“I wouldn’t have been able to do it by myself,” Polynice said. “I hope this will inspire other people, that they won’t be discouraged by the little stuff.”
Follow Rebekah Allen on Twitter @rebekahallen.