Nicolas Victorin came away with more than a degree from his years of study at Hillsborough Community College.
A scholarship student from Haiti with a can-do attitude, Victorin made key connections during his time in Tampa that are helping him rebuild his home town.
Last year, Victorin was elected mayor of Pignon, an agricultural city in northern Haiti with a population of 42,000. At 31, he is the youngest mayor serving in the impoverished island nation.
"I am fortunate because I have friends in the states and received an education here," he said. "I can use that to bring change."
His list of changes already is long.
Investment adviser Brent Wertz in Tampa donated $3,000 to start Pignon's first-ever community radio station.
Former Bell Shoals Baptist Church evangelist Kelly Green paid for holiday meals in Pignon last winter.
Real estate company DeBartolo Development led a food drive that sent 290,000 meals to Pignon after Hurricane Matthew last summer. The company later purchased 10 goats for farmers.
And the Tampa-based mission Three Strand Cord is picking up half the $12,000 cost of a school under construction in rural Pignon.
Victorin was building and strengthening more connections as he wrapped up a two-week visit to Tampa last Monday.
DeBartolo Development promised to help expand an existing microloan program that helps women in Pignon start small businesses such as raising livestock.
Radiant Church and a number of local missions told him they're interested in helping build a new church.
And Victorin had a meeting with Dick Greco, who was 34 when he first was elected mayor of Tampa in 1967.
"I told him stay who you are," said Greco, now 83, who has worked with DeBartolo. "Can't go wrong like that."
Victorin credits his perseverance as an adult to his upbringing in Pignon, a city with unreliable electricity, no running water and fewer than 20 cars.
"We had to look out for each other," he said. "My father would come home from the farm and give neighbors his fruit as he walked."
Through a scholarship from the United States Agency for International Development, Victorin attended Hillsborough Community College from 2006-2008 and received an associate's degree in electronics engineering technology.
In 2010, he was back in Pignon working in a hospital information technology department when a 7.0 earthquake hit near Haiti's capital of Port-au-Prince. An estimated 300,000 people died and 1.5 million were displaced.
Located nearly 100 miles from the heart of the disaster, Pignon was mostly spared the destruction of the quake but not the economic aftershocks.
Victorin came to Florida as a refugee, one of more than 13,000 Haitians who fled here seeking help, according to the Florida Department of Children and Families. He chose Tampa because of friends he had made at HCC.
He planned to stay just long enough to find ways of helping Haiti.
His networking started when he met evangelist Green at Bell Shoals in Brandon.
"He is hard to say no to," said Green, who now lives in Michigan. "And he has the character and work ethic to back it up."
Green introduced Victorin to Three Strand Cord, investment adviser Wertz and Edward Kobel, chief operating officer with DeBartolo Development.
"Here was this young man with $10 in his pocket," Kobel said. "And he says he thinks if he could further his education he could do more for Haiti."
Kobel, then on the board of trustees at St. Leo University, helped Victorin secure a full scholarship to the private school in Pasco County. But when Victorin returned home after nine months in Tampa to apply for a student visa, he was denied. He still doesn't know why.
"I was stuck," he said. "So, I made the best of it."
Out of a room in his parents' home, he started a community radio station that broadcasts evangelical messages, prayers, sports, education for kids, updates on health issues, disaster relief strategies and news.
"We have no TV," he said. "But most have a small radio receiver."
With $4,000 in funding secured through friends in Atlanta, he created the microloan program for women.
The program provides $600 interest-free. If they pay back in full within six months, recipients can get another loan. Not a single customer has missed a payment.
Nearly 150 women have received loans and with donations from other friends, including some in Tampa, the pot is now $20,000.
With success like this, people pushed Victorin to run for office. In a field of 25, he won by more than 2,000 votes.
His monthly city budget is just $5,000 and infrastructure money and international aid can come with a kickback attached.
Victorin says he turns down such crooked deals.
"I am trying to change the culture of my country."
His Tampa support base is helping make it happen.
"We'll do all we can," said Kobel, with DeBartolo Development. "Who knows where this could lead him. Congress? Maybe president. I know he can do it."
Contact Paul Guzzo at [email protected] Follow @PGuzzoTimes.