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Heilman '10 concludes two-year stint in Peace Corps

Barry McNamara
11/16/2012

Perhaps the career of David Shawver ’70, the most recent recipient of Monmouth College’s Distinguished Alumnus Award, will serve as a model for an MC graduate who matriculated 40 years later – Harrison Heilman ’10.

Just as Shawver’s career in international education began with Peace Corps service, Heilman began his own 27-month Peace Corps commitment in the Philippines, a position that will conclude on Nov. 16.

Heilman isn’t sure what will come next, but a year-long contract to teach English in Japan, Korea or China is a possibility. So is returning to the Monmouth area to enroll in the master’s program in public health at Western Illinois University.

So, just how did Heilman get the idea that the Peace Corps was right for him?

“I can’t tell you how many times I have been asked that question, and I really don’t have a solid answer,” he replied. “I had known that I wanted to do Peace Corps for many years. But I didn’t do any research, nor did I have any idea where I wanted to serve. Once I got to training in Manila, the staff asked me why I chose Peace Corps. I found it strangely difficult to reply, other than say ‘I am still young and still think that I can change the world.’ I wanted to serve while I was still idealistic and not bogged down by the weight of experience and reality.”

Beyond his idealistic outlook, Heilman also prepared for the experience by tailoring his majors (political science, Spanish and international studies) to match the requirements of participation in the Peace Corps.

But when it comes right down to it, Heilman said, “Very little can truly prepare you for Peace Corps service. It is a unique experience, different for each volunteer. Even in my town, we speak three different dialects, whereas my sitemate speaks an entirely different language. I studied Spanish in college, but I speak Tagalog at site. The fact that I previously learned another language has helped with my acquisition of Tagalog.”

He continued, “I did very little study of Southeast Asia, and this part of the world is rarely discussed in higher education. (Professor) Farhat Haq, during our many conversations about the world, talked about cross-cultural interaction. This helped me as I worked with people who aren’t from the United States. After a few months in service, it was not the differences, but the similarities between us that I started to notice. Humans are humans no matter where they live. Monmouth may not have taught me how to be successful in the Peace Corps – as I firmly believe nothing short of service can do that – but it empowered me to address problems critically and find solutions by combining information from many classes. I really appreciate the fact that I learned in a liberal arts environment because it positively affected the way I approached service.”

Heilman lives in the town of Basud in the Camarines Norte province, about 350 kilometers southeast of Manila. He has traveled extensively within the country to places like the Mayon Volcano and Boracay Island, but he has not left the Philippines.

“During my first few months at site, I had the opportunity to visit a place called Donsol, Sorsogon, and was able to swim with whale sharks,” recalled Heilman, who noted that the sharks congregate off the coast of Sorsogon to feed on plankton. “Whale sharks are a mammoth animal, about as long as a bus, but incredibly gentle. I got within two feet of the eye of one of the sharks, and I could tell he was looking straight at me."

Heilman hiked through the Banaue Rice Terraces, a 2,000-year-old site that provides space for the Filipinos to grow rice on the steep slopes of the Central Cordilliera Mountain Range.

While visiting such sites has been memorable, Heilman said the real highlight has been his daily work. He serves a small, rural school near the ocean, where he is required to teach four hours a day with a Filipino teacher who requested assistance from the Peace Corps.

“I was not assigned to my school by accident,” said Heilman. “Based on various experiences in the U.S., and my background in sports, I was selected to assist at my school, Dominador Narido High School. Officials wanted someone who would develop its library, athletic program and remedial reading program.”

With fewer than 300 students, Dominador Narido is one of the smallest high schools in the country, which means that teachers are also in short supply.

“I tend to fill in the gaps, or substitute where I am needed,” said Heilman. “My typical day is actually very similar to that in the States. I take what’s called a multicab or jeepney to school. Traffic for me means various animals in the road doing various appropriate and inappropriate things, rice drying on the side of the road and floods, depending on the season.”

Heilman usually teaches the first, second, fifth and sixth subjects of the day, working with students from all four years of high school, which starts two years earlier than in the U.S.

“My students are ages 12 to 16 usually, but I have had several students who are older than me. I get to school at about 6:45 a.m. Lunch is from 12 to 1 p.m., and most of the students go home to eat. This gives me an hour to eat without people staring at me asking me why I am not eating rice. I have made up some brilliant lies about why I do not eat rice because my students can’t understand that I simply do not like rice. Filipinos eat rice with every meal."

During Nutrition Month in July, Heilman’s goal was to teach the students about the importance of proper nutrition. One of the most enjoyable events in this month was the opportunity to experience native foods cooked by the students.

“All of the students, the other teachers and I sat around a banana leaf and ate the meal with our fingers,” said Heilman. “This was the Philippines at its best. Normally rice and vegetables are not finger food, but Filipinos prove that almost anything can be finger food.”

He added, “I have truly enjoyed the interaction with my students. This past year, more than double the number of students went to college than in the previous year. I’ve watched these students grow up, and it’s been an interesting experience seeing education from the other side of the podium.”

Six years ago, when it was time for Heilman to pick a college, he said he chose Monmouth because of the swim team and because “I liked how the college looked like a college campus, with all the buildings the same architectural style. I could have gone to many other colleges. Political science is not exactly a unique program, but I found at Monmouth that it was the combination of experiences inside and outside the classroom that made it the right choice for me.”

After crediting faculty member Ken McMillan for his help with Heilman’s various positions in student government and another professor, David Suda, for teaching him Russian, Heilman added, “I can never remember calling anyone in the political science department by their last names, and to this day I miss Farhat’s famous lentil soup.”

He concluded, “Countless teachers, students, staff members and friends in the town itself made my Monmouth experience special. Each of them, in their own little way, changed my world for the better.”

And, through Heilman, those countless individuals are helping to make a positive impact a half a world away.