CONWAY, SC (WMBF) - More than 150,000 people are feared dead after a 7.0 earthquake ripped through Haiti on January 12. While Coastal Carolina University may be thousands of miles away from its epicenter, the effects are hitting too close to home for one student.
Pierre Henry Valdema is Coastal Carolina's only Haitian student, majoring in computer science and math. While he joins his sister - now an American citizen - at the Conway school, he almost waved his degree goodbye after learning his hometown in Haiti came crumbling to the ground.
"My best friend, I saw him just 24 hours [before the earthquake struck]," recalled Valdema. "The school collapsed and he was dead. I just couldn't believe it."
His best friend didn't survive the initial earthquake, and for 24 hours straight, the safety of his family was anyone's guess.
"They said something really bad happened in Haiti. Then I tried to call them, and I couldn't reach them," said Valdema, when asked how long it took to make contact with his loved ones.
Valdema's family lives 25 minutes from the epicenter of the Port-au-Prince earthquake, and while his home may still be standing, his parent's services are in desperate need.
Valdema's father is an Episcopalian minister of six different churches and elementary schools - one of which was completely destroyed in the earthquake. The remaining five, all of which suffered severe damage, are now home to hundreds who lost everything. His mother, a nutritionist, is now helping to nurse more than 800 children back to health at a Haitian clinic.
With their efforts stretched thin, his parents dropped a bombshell from Haiti. Because of the earthquake, his parents were no longer able to financially provide for his schooling in the U.S.
Coastal Carolina President David DeCenzo caught wind of Valdema's conflict less than two weeks after the earthquake. After sending an email to Valdema and his sister, a senior at Coastal, DeCenzo gave Valdema new hope for the future.
"We kind of put our heads together and said, 'What would be the best course of action?'" said DeCenzo. "[We] came up with the solution and that was to offer him a scholarship so he could continue his education."
The award will also provide funds for books, meal plans and housing. Valdema says moments after learning of DeCenzo's contribution, he told his family back in Haiti of the good news with a text.
"I couldn't get a hold of [my father] at first, and then he sent me a text back saying 'Glory to God," he said.
Valdema says after graduating from Coastal Carolina, he plans on pursuing a master's degree and someday returning to Haiti.
"It's a big responsibility now - to get in as much education as I can," Valdema said.
With just one year of school to go, his determination to make his family proud is stronger than ever.