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May 30—NORWICH — When new students arrive at Norwich Free Academy, faculty advise them to "try everything" the college-like academy has to offer.
Marie Toussaint, 17, of Norwich, who spoke no English when she first stepped onto campus in January 2017 as a freshman, took that advice literally.
In her 3 1/2 years at NFA, Toussaint has excelled in classes, produced lifelike art drawings, ran track and threw javelin, joined the Haitian, Fashion and Mountain Bike clubs, enjoyed lively political debates, stayed active in St. Mary's Church in Greeneville and learned English.
"To go from being an English language student to taking (advanced placement) biology is not easy at all," said NFA Diversity Director Leo Butler, a mentor to Toussaint and many immigrant students. "Sometimes, that gets lost in the shuffle in the transcripts. But that's a tremendous accomplishment. Marie has done everything you can think of. She's done it all."
Toussaint and her mother, Marie Rose Jules, immigrated to Norwich from Haiti at the urging of her grandmother, Jeannine Cherestal, who had been living in Norwich for more than a decade.
Her three older cousins, Kevin, Jennifer and Madochee Jules, all graduated from NFA. Jennifer Jules asked Butler to "take care of" Marie when she arrived.
"So, I met Marie and right away I knew this is a very special young lady and I'm going to keep my eyes out for her," Butler recalled. "She made it easy for me. I didn't have to do a lot."
Toussaint said within a week, she felt comfortable on campus, met fellow Haitian students, made friends and absorbed American culture and language.
"It was really quick for me," she said, "being here all day and hearing it."
At home she speaks Creole with her mother, who works at Mohegan Sun Casino, and with her grandmother; French when she calls her father, Alphonse Toussaint, in Haiti; and English with her cousins and older brother, Marc Toussaint, a student at Three Rivers Community College.
Soon, she was taking advanced placement classes, debating politics and social issues and becoming an accomplished art student. A runner in track, her coach one day handed her a javelin. "I tried it out and I loved it!"
All NFA clubs shut down during the coronavirus pandemic, but Toussaint still rides her bike and dabbles in fashion design.
For field day, Toussaint wore a long-sleeved red NFA T-shirt. "It was boring," she said, so she cut the neckline for an off-one-shoulder look. She bought a simple prom dress but was working to alter it. "I think it's going to be pink."
Fashion Club advisor Rebecca Karis said she helped Toussaint with some accessories and alterations to the dress. She said Toussaint is very involved in school and community activities and even combines her interests in fashion and Haitian Club.
"She's always super helpful," Karis said, "very involved, always asking what more she can do, and she gets the kids excited about different things."
Teacher Shannon Andros taught Toussaint in sociology and women's studies classes last year. Toussaint stood out, attentive to lectures, participated in debates, asked questions. Classmates always sought her opinions.
"She never had a problem speaking her mind," Andros said, "and listening to what others had to say."
Toussaint said even during the pandemic and remote learning, the George Floyd murder motivated students to talk about social justice. "I believe, like most people, that it was so wrong," she said. "(Police) are supposed to protect us."
Toussaint said the United States should welcome immigrants, because they bring different cultures. She was thrilled to meet people from different countries at NFA and learn about Spanish and Puerto Rican cultures. Haiti has "none of that," she said.
Toussaint will attend the University of Connecticut in Storrs, which also has an ethnically diverse student body. She hasn't decided on her major, but she loves chemistry and biosciences and plans to become an OB-GYN physician. She plans to stay in the United States but wants to travel to help people.
"I want to travel, but I want to travel for a reason, not just for fun," she said.
Toussaint, her family and Haitian friends still follow news in Haiti. The impoverished island nation again is rocked by political strife. Riots and kidnappings have escalated. U.S. President Joe Biden has extended the Temporary Protected Status, allowing about 100,000 Haitians to remain in the United States on visas.
"History is supposed to tell you things like: 'Don't make the same mistakes. This has to change.' But in Haiti, people keep making the same mistakes over and over and over again," Toussaint said about her native land.
"They elect a president, because he says he wants to make changes. He wants to make our lives better," she continued. "But we feel after two months as the president, they don't like him anymore, so they protest. They burn buildings down. It's happened every time, over and over again, so how can you make something different if you already know that is going to be the outcome?"