At 6’10,” people marvel at Djery Baptiste’s imposing size, but it’s the capacity of his brain that truly makes him unique as a college athlete.
Come December, the 22-year-old will be one of the few college basketball players to graduate with a year-and-a-half of eligibility left.
He’ll earn his undergraduate degree in Human Organizational Development with a concentration in International Leadership Development from Vanderbilt University. Then, he’ll transfer to UMass and pursue his Masters degree in public policy and business administration while suiting up for the Minutemen on the hardwood.
Growing up in Gonaïves, Haiti, Baptiste never imagined that life would present him with the opportunity to pursue a higher education while playing basketball in the U.S.
“I’m coming from a poor country, and I am very blessed to be able to come to the U.S. while using my physical ability to get a better education and play the game I love,” he said. “But, it’s all with an end goal in mind. I want to go back and truly invest in my country.”
Baptiste isn’t one of those athletes with intentions of funneling money back to the country to save it from its deeply-rooted turmoil. As a scholar, and as someone who has seen how poorly invested money can create more problems instead of lasting change, he’s much more realistic.
“I’ve come to the realization that you don’t have to put that pressure on yourself that you’re going to fix a whole country that has big systemic problems, frequent natural disasters, economic oppression and corruption,” he explained. “For me, I want to be as practical as possible. These are problems you can’t fix over a lifetime. Right now, I’m learning what I can so that in the future I can take effective steps to make my home country better for the people who are often forgotten, starting in my hometown.”
Along the way, he’s capitalizing on every opportunity provided by his extraordinary college experience both on and off the court.
Arriving In The Birthplace of Basketball
Because Haiti is consistently ranked one of the top 20 poorest countries in the world, sports, in general, take a backseat.
“However, we are very passionate in supporting other countries that we like in the World Cup, and we one day wish to support our own teams as they’re on the biggest stages in sports,” Baptiste said.
Baptiste, whose father owns a hotel and a couple of motorcycle businesses, occasionally played soccer with friends growing up, and picked up a basketball only to shoot on a lone hoop. School was his primary focus at the time, but as he shot up in height, people told him he had great potential to hoop in the U.S.
“Staying in Haiti was not going to be beneficial. With the corruption of the country overall, even if you happen to get a college degree, if your parents are even able to get you there, it’s just very hard to get a descent job to make ends meat,” Baptiste said. “Going to the U.S. where I could finish high school school while playing basketball, and go further to college, and possibly make it professionally, whether it’s in the NBA or overseas, it was just a great opportunity.”
After a friend helped Baptiste contact coaches in the U.S., he landed at Wilbraham & Monson Academy, a co-ed boarding school in Wilbraham, Mass., less than 30 minutes from Springfield, which just happens to be the birthplace of basketball.
He was 15 years old, didn’t speak English, and had never played organized ball.
“I was using music lyrics to learn English,” he said. “I could speak Creole, French and Spanish, so I would take lyrics, usually country lyrics, and translate them on Google. I’d hear the words, and then read and write them in French, and that’s how I got to know the language.”
Like learning a new language, basketball came with a steep learning curve, too, even at the junior varsity level.
The disappointment that came from not getting much playing time due to needing to improve, combined with a torn ACL in his first AAU game, made for a rough start to his basketball career.
Then, he was diagnosed with a stress fracture during his sophomore year after overworking himself while trying to come back from the ACL injury. Once he became healthy again, his basketball aptitude sky-rocketed.
“The summer of my junior year, that’s when I really got good. That’s when coaches saw what I could do well and what I could become,” he said.
Schools came knocking, but it was Vanderbilt that landed the budding basketball star.
“Education is the reason I committed to Vanderbilt,” Baptiste said. “Basketball is not who I am. I love the game and I work hard at it, but I also love studying. I love being a student.”
A Supersized Agenda
On the court, Baptiste saw action in 64 games, and averaged 2.4 points and 2.6 rebounds for the Commodores, a team and coaching staff he values to the core. So, as he was looking to transfer to pursue a graduate degree, he wanted his new school to embody some of the same off-the-court principles as Vanderbilt.
With the belief that he could continue to improve on the hardwood and receive a solid education, he decided on UMass.
“I wanted to sign with a program that could capitalize on my specific skill set and style of play, and I was very thankful to have found UMass, where my strengths will be a huge asset to how the team plays both on offense and defense.”
As he pursues excellence with the Minutemen, he will embed himself in public policy and business administration so he can perhaps realize a dream he’s held since the age of 13, and become a diplomat for Haiti, after playing basketball at the professional level.
“This will be a lifelong career for me,” he explained. “I have no idea how to fix all of the problems in Haiti. I’m just learning as I go. The more classes I take, the more I’m learning about how exactly I can give back. I’m not trying to change the world. I’m trying to change myself, personally, for the better, so I can impact the world in some way.”
And, as someone who’s going after the life he wants in order to allow others the opportunity to chase their dreams, too, Baptiste is well ahead of the game.