Language was the least of his adaptations when senior business management major Peterson Fussaint arrived at Rocky Mountain College from Haiti in 2010, but his perspective has helped him thrive.
“In my culture, if an old man or an old lady’s carrying something, you run to help. Here, they separate themselves. There is a lot of process. My experience here makes me respect other people’s culture and perspective. Montana is accepting, but also has stereotypes. People ask ‘Are you an athlete?’” he said. And he is not.
“I have a completely different, opposite culture, not just to America, but to other countries too. But the expectation of Montana is that everybody is OK with the way I act.”
That was a blessing for him. He already spoke French, Creole and English. “I knew a lot of vocabulary, but the way you guys flow – I didn’t have that. ‘You betcha’? That was new.
“In my culture, people, when they meet a woman, [they] kiss on the cheek. I ignored culture here, kept being me, but some people here found that awkward. I was adapting the hard way.
“People say I have a good smile. When I smile, it’s a true smile. A lot of people smile as a barrier. The U.S. is the greatest country in history, but inside of it, there is not enough trusting. Even at RMC, some are more approachable than others, even though they’re all good people.”
His closest advisers at Rocky Mountain College have since died. The honest humor and outreach of the late Kristi Foster, RMC chaplain when Fussaint arrived as a freshman, knit him into the community.
“She told me to dream in English,” he remembers.
He also lost Michael West, a former director of international programs who assisted his transition from Haiti. “He was a great friend, a mentor, director and a great adviser,” Fussaint said.
But Fussaint has been to many funerals. After the 2010 Haiti earthquake in which as many as hundreds of thousands of people perished, he worked as a translator for volunteer medical teams.
“In Haiti, our funerals are more emotional; we are more attached. For church, we are really serious about it,” he said. His faith work led him to accept the opportunity that summer to come to RMC, sponsored by two Montana medical professionals he worked with.
Fussaint changed his major twice because “I did not see myself in them. I thought I was going to be in computer science, I switched to aviation management, and I was not familiar with a lot of stuff associated with this major. I took a deep breath and thought about something that would fit me and my personality. Since business management is pretty broad, I can situate myself anywhere.” He likes his decision.
Now a senior, Fussaint took his realism into his 2014 internship in management training at Enterprise Car Rental. He said, “You are always responsible. They want to hire a decision-maker, someone who can make a good decision. I have figured out that I’m at a really great college – because RMC taught me [how to manage] small group communication, group projects and work under pressure.
“We have to compromise in order to complete a project, with employees from Montana, Las Vegas, Tennessee, Ohio and Haiti. There’s some accent going on, too. That makes me feel strong in this internship. Some think inside the box, but Rocky taught me to think outside the box – to flow – to get it done. I’m not afraid to fail now, to come back stronger.
“I listen to everybody. Not everybody listens to me. I compromise with everybody. Not everybody compromises with me. But I never take it personally; I go with the flow.”
Haiti, Fussaint reminds, has “a great history of independence. But we have a tough history with America,” which tried to occupy Haiti several times, most recently in 1919.
The legends in America, he points out, were individuals who put their genius first. “People underestimate somebody from a third world country,” he said. “We all need to put our thoughtfulness first,” he said.
For the future, his dreams are still there, but “you can’t count ‘one, three,’” Fussaint said. “The first step is to get my diploma.”
“Education comes before democracy,” he said. “There’s no good democracy without good leadership. You cannot let yourself be defined by others,” he said. If he can contribute, he’ll return to Haiti, he said, but not as a politician. “I hear everybody when they talk, but I listen to good people. I want that inside.”