Class Reunion, Borneo style: Faculty member returns to his Peace Corps roots

Jonathan Hall

Guest post by Jonathan Hall, associate teaching professor of physics

Penn State Behrend

Forty years ago, I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Malaysia, teaching students in the only secondary school in the district of Sipitang, Sabah (formerly known as North Borneo). This summer, I returned to visit my former students and fellow teachers. I brought along my daughter, Liz Hall, who was a student at Behrend in 2003-04 before attending the U.S. Naval Academy.

Our trip started with a fourteen-hour flight from the United States to China, and then to Kota Kinabalu (“KK”), the capital of Sabah. We arrived late in the evening, and checked into the hotel. When the receptionist found out that I had been a teacher in Sipitang, which was near her hometown of Beaufort, it resulted in all of the staff wanting to have their picture taken with the “guru from Sipitang.” It was a warm welcome back to Sabah.

After a recovery day on the beaches of the South China Sea, we headed to a downtown hotel for a reunion dinner with some of my former students who live and work in KK.

It was Ramadan, a month-long religious observation during which Muslims fast each day from dawn to sunset, so we joined them for their evening meal when they broke the day’s fast. It was a buffet offering a wide variety of dishes, from curries to satay, which was an excellent introduction to Malaysian cuisine for Liz.

After eating, we went around the table, telling our stories from the past forty years. A friendly competition emerged regarding the number of grandchildren each person at the table had. The person with the most had seven.

 

Class reunion

First, a little history

Malaysia was formed from a collection of colonies in the early 1960s. In order to develop as a nation, expanding education from the few to the many was the number one priority of the government.

To accomplish this, Malaysia “imported” teachers from other countries to teach, especially topics such as math and science, in rural areas. This is how Peace Corps volunteers came to be in Malaysia from the early 1960s until the early 1980s, helping until Malaysia was able to train enough of their own teachers.

As is common in other nations in Asia, your academic success, and your future career, is largely determined by the results of national standardized exams. The exams are given at the end of Form 3 and Form 5 (ninth and eleventh grade). Math is a mandatory pass. If you fail the math exam, that is the end of your education.

The parents of many of my students were subsistence farmers or fishermen, but they knew that education was the key to a brighter future for their children. Unfortunately, because they lived in a remote area, many of my students did not have teachers who were qualified in math during their early years in school. We had a year or two to catch up through practice in class, daily homework, and extra classes after school and on Saturdays when necessary.

At the reunion dinner, several of my students said that they came to high school unprepared in math, but learned and became proficient enough at it to pass their exams, which enabled them to move on to careers in teaching, nursing, banking, business and law. It was very gratifying to hear that.

I don’t think that I did anything special or was a particularly good teacher as I’d just graduated from college, but it was enough for me to volunteer to be present where I was needed. In that place and time, it was critical to have a qualified teacher who was willing and able to help them prepare for their exams.

Mountain climbing with former student

On day three, Liz and I went to Mount Kinabalu to meet up with my former student, Daring Laban.

When I taught Daring, he lived in a remote village, Long Pa Sia, close to the Indonesian border. Students from his village traveled five days on foot through the rain forest to attend secondary school, where they lived in a dormitory.

mt kinabalu climbers

Liz, myself, and Daring

Today, Daring is the manager of Sabah State Parks. Sabah Parks administers several state and national parks, including Kinabalu Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Center, and the Danum Valley Conservation Area, a mostly undisturbed rainforest that is the home of orangutans, Sumatran rhinoceros, pygmy elephants, and more. Sabah Parks host 1.3 million visitors a year, playing a major role in tourism, the second largest sector of the state economy. While much of the rainforest has been lost over the past forty years, ecotourism has replaced timber as a mainstay of the economy and is helping to preserve the remaining rain forest.

On Mount Kinabalu, we traveled through four climate zones as we climbed—lowland dipterocarp rain forest, montane forest, cloud forest, and sub-apline vegetation—before reaching bare rock and the peak at 13,400 feet.

Daring Jon Liz Mt KinabaluDaring, me, and Liz on Mt. Kinabalu

Liz & Daring climbing

Climbing Mt. Kinabalu

Mt Kinabalu peak

Mt. Kinabalu peak

The park was formed to preserve its great biodiversity, including some of the world’s largest pitcher plants, and the Rafflesia, said to be the world’s largest flower. During the 8.5-kilometer hike, we climbed 2 kilometers in altitude.

In June 2015, there was an earthquake at the mountain. Rockslides killed eighteen climbers; most of those killed were students visiting from Singapore. The trail was closed for six months for repairs. The violence of the earthquake was still very evident, with large areas of newly exposed white granite where the rockslides occurred instead of dark, weathered rock seen elsewhere.

rock slide Mt K

Rockslide damage on Mt. Kinabalu

We celebrated a successful climb by stopping at an open-air restaurant specializing in wild boar, which are hunted in the oil palm plantations.

Visiting Long Pa Sia

After hiking, it was on to the interior village of Long Pa Sia. Back then, it was a 50-mile trek. Now, it is accessible by four-wheel drive vehicles over a logging road.

The village is named by the native Lun Dayeh people1. Long = mouth, Pa = river, and Sia = red. In traditional Borneo, the river was the lifeblood of the community and was used for transportation, water, food, and bathing.

We spent a day hunting and fishing with another of my former students, Lukas. Lukas retired from banking in the city to hunt, a traditional way of life in the interior. We caught several small fish in the river. Lukas and his hunting dogs brought back a barking deer.

Long Pa Sia

The village of Long Pa Sia

Liz at Pa Sia river

Liz at the Pa Sia river

Lukas & Daring after hunt

Lukas and Daring after hunting

Many changes, but friends remain

Sipitang was my home far away from home when I was in the Peace Corps. All of the towns and cities in Sabah have grown and developed so much over the last forty years, that they were nearly unrecognizable to me. (In Long Pa Sia, which was known very being remote, there is now excellent cell phone reception!) Sipitang was no exception.

In Sipitang, changes included a hospital, paved roads, enough cars to have traffic jams, new schools, factories and industries, and many more people. Gone is the old open-air fish market where fishermen off-loaded from small praus their catch of prawns, squid, fish, and rays. Also gone is the fruit and vegetable market where farmers brought baskets of bananas, durians, rambutans, and other tropical fruits. Now there are two supermarkets instead.

Taking a walk down memory lane, I showed Liz the school where I taught.

Next it was on to a “Hari Raya” dinner, celebrating the end of Ramadan. The dinner was hosted by Ramawi, another former student. Ramawi’s family happens to include Wan Musa, a fellow science teacher. We worked closely together forty years ago and became dear friends. I attended Wan Musa’s wedding, where I was the Malay equivalent of his best man, which included having the groom’s face and mine smeared with rice flour.

It was great to see him again, however briefly.

Jonathan & Wan Musa

Me and Wan Musa

Weddings, coffee, and longhouses

Speaking of weddings, the next day we traveled to Sarawak, the other Malaysian state on Borneo, crossing the Lawas River by ferry to attend a Lun Dayeh wedding.

Ishak Liz Lawas river ferry

Ishak and Liz at the Lawas river ferry

After a Christian wedding ceremony, there was a reception for the entire community, which included traditional songs and dance, and the giving of baskets of gifts by the bride to members of both families.

Lun Dayeh wedding

Lun Dayeh wedding in Sarawak

The next day, was a road trip to Tenom, to drink the locally grown coffee and visit the Sabah Murut Cultural Center. Built as a traditional longhouse, but on a much larger scale, the center includes displays of traditional dress, baskets, musical instruments (gongs), and other aspects of the culture and history of the local native people.

On the way back, we stopped at two longhouses—a traditional wooden longhouse and a new one made with modern materials. Regardless of the building materials, the basic design is the same. Longhouses are an elevated building in which each family has an “apartment” consisting of a living room, bedroom, and kitchen. All of the apartments open onto a verandah, which runs the length of the longhouse and serves as a common area.

Sipitang Longhouse

At a longhouse

canstockphoto7243483

Stock photo of a typical Borneo longhouse

Math teacher turned voice coach?

After visiting Sarawak, we returned to KK to prepare for our 3 a.m. flight home the next day. But, before leaving, we met up with other former students for the most sumptuous Chinese dinner I’ve ever had.

In my three years in Sabah, I taught one English class. Being a math/science teacher, and learning TESL (Teaching English as a Second Language) on the fly, I decided to incorporate singing in the lessons. Albert, one of my former students who was at dinner that night, was in my English class and said that I inspired him to become a pretty decent karaoke singer. (As a teacher, you plant a seed and…)

Durian McFlurrys

What has changed in Sabah over the past forty years? Every town has a KFC. Also, there are McDonald’s restaurants and they serve Durian McFlurrys. This is a flavor that would not go over big in the United States.

McDonalds durian

While many Asians love the taste of durian, as do I, others have been known to object to the scent of durian. One writer described durian as “eating a delicious raspberry sorbet in a revolting public lavatory.”

Durian smells so bad, that it is banned in many public places. Upscale hotels charge large cleaning fees if it is brought into a guest room.

no durians

Final reflections

In Malaysia, one is struck by the hospitality of people. It is part of a way of life, of forming relationships with others, and strengthening those relationships is valuable and important to them. My students thanked me for teaching them. I thanked them for welcoming me into their lives.

While I taught students science, math, geography, and English, they taught me something of great value that I have kept close to my heart. The students in my class came from a wide variety of diverse backgrounds, with different cultures, languages, and religions, but they were all classmates together. They worked and learned together and respected one other.

In the classes I taught, I never witnessed anyone being left out or excluded because of differences. The class was only successful if every student was, so students helped each other.

Forty years later, that has not changed. It is normal and natural for Muslims celebrating the end of Ramadan to invite Christian and Chinese classmates to their home to share a meal. They don’t let their differences divide them, they respect and celebrate those differences2. This was particularly striking to me now because in our current times, there are some who openly advocate that if people are different, they should be kept separate.

The native people of central Borneo; the Lun Dayeh (also known as Lun Bawang), Kelabit and Sa’ban, are involved in the Heart of Borneo Project, dedicated to the conservation of the remaining rain forest in central Borneo. Preserving the environment impacts the preservation of traditions, languages, culture, and a way of life for the people there. Their slogan is: “Serurum. Selawe. Meruked.” This translates from Lun Dayeh as: “Friends. One way (united). Forever.”

Thanks and terima kasih3to the students of Sipitang for teaching this “guru” the most important of lessons.

NOTES:

1. Though we live on opposite sides of the globe, the Lun Dayeh people have a history of friendship with Americans. Before World War II, American missionaries with the Borneo Evangelical Mission lived in Lun Dayeh communities. When Borneo was occupied early in WWII, these missionaries and their families were executed. Later in the war, two American bombers crashed in the interior. Surviving crew members were found by the Lun Dayeh, who recognized them as Americans. The Lun Dayeh leaders, then made the decision to shelter, protect, and defend the American crewmen, at the risk of their own lives and communities. The Americans were guided to a location where British special forces established a small airfield to return the crewman to safety. For the full story, read The Airmen and the Headhunters by Judith M. Heimann, or watch the PBS Secrets of the Dead episode of the same name as the book title.

2. If you like holidays, Malaysia is the place to be. You can celebrate Muslim, Christian, Chinese, Hindu, Buddhist, national and harvest festival holidays!

3. While terima kasih is how you say thank you in Malay, I prefer it’s literal meaning, which is “receive love.” The response, sama sama, means “the same to you”!

Behrend Lecturer Travels to Nairobi to Present Research Work

By Heather Cass
Publications Manager, Penn State Behrend

Peter Olszewski

Peter Olszewski, lecturer in mathematics

 

 

The adage that two heads are better than one is certainly true at universities where faculty members often collaborate with colleagues on research projects. Sometimes, the partners sit a few offices away from each other. Other times, they are a several states away. Occasionally, they are on the other side of the globe.

Such is the case for Peter Olszewski, a lecturer in mathematics, whose research partner, Dickson Owiti, is 7,600 miles away in Kenya.

Olszewski and Owiti met at the Joint Math Meetings conference in San Diego in 2013 and realized they had similar research interests.

“We are both interested in how math education should be set up at the high school level to adequately prepare students for the transition to college,” Olszewski said.

Olszewski said he appreciated and recognized the assertive tone that Owiti took in his work.

“We are very similar in that way and I thought we’d work well together,” Olszewski said.

Owiti agreed and the two began a joint research project surveying their first-year students and teaching them effective study skills.

While you might think two countries would have different problems, Olszewski said math students in Kenya struggle in the same ways students in the United States do, namely transition problems from high school to college, and a lack of strong algebra and trigonometry skills, and too many modern distractions.

In June, Olszweski traveled to Nairobi, Kenya, to join Owiti and present their findings at the Strathmore International Mathematics Conference. They shared three papers and led a workshop on researchable problems in mathematics education for undergraduate mathematics education students.

19601429_10213896795119967_4196190263886178524_n

Owiti and Olszewski

“Both Owiti and I gave the students some ideas of current topics they could use in their senior research projects,” Olszewski said. “Our suggestions were well received; they loved our ideas.”

Among their top findings: High school teachers are not using homework effectively and are giving students lots of the same work, rather than challenging them to problem-solve through critical thinking; students are not being taught how to study (something they will need to do in college); and they are often looking at improper sources for more information, i.e. YouTube, Wikipedia, etc.

“We are seeing two major trends,” Olszewski said. “Students are not using equal signs correctly and they are not making connections between concepts; they are cramming for assessments and not looking at the big picture.”

While in Kenya, Olszewski also got an education of a different sort.

“My mother traveled with me as she had always wanted to visit Africa, and we went on a safari in the Nairobi National Park,” he said. “It was really wonderful, but it turned a little gruesome when we witnessed a lion killing a water buffalo calf.”

They also toured an elephant orphanage and a giraffe sanctuary, where things were a little more upbeat.

Olszewski and Owiti are polishing up their research paper now and are looking forward to their next project, which they have already been invited to speak about at the next conference in Nairobi in 2019.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

 

Noce to be honored by Boys and Girls Club of Erie

By Heather Cass
Publications & Design Coordinator, Penn State Behrend

Dr. Kathleen Noce, senior lecturer in Management Information Systems, grew up in a warm, loving home that was a haven for neighbors and friends in need.

“My mother was that woman in the neighborhood who all the kids knew they could go to for a meal, a hug, a few dollars, even a couch, if they needed a place to stay for a night or two,” Noce said.

Noce said her parents noticed early on that she, too, was a nurturer.

“They saw that I enjoyed helping others and they really encouraged me to do it,” she said.

It makes sense, then, that Noce would end up in a helping profession, educating college students in the finer points of MIS and business.

kathy-noce-8

But her service to others extends beyond the classroom and into the community, where she serves on several boards and volunteers for a variety of nonprofit organizations, including Boys and Girls Club of Erie which plans to honor Noce on Oct. 19 with the Woman and Youth Award, the highest honor the organization bestows on volunteers.

Noce has been a board member and volunteer at the Boys and Girls Club of Erie for more than twenty years. In addition, she has helped the club with many of its technology needs through Partnership Erie, a nonprofit outreach center of the Black School of Business that provides web design, web marketing, and content management services for free.

The majority of the work is done by students in MIS387 Website Design and Administration who are learning to design and manage websites. It’s a win-win: nonprofits benefit from the tech help and students get hands-on experience working with real clients.

Since Noce established Partnership Erie at Behrend in 2001, students have built more than 125 websites for a variety of nonprofit organizations.

“I realized I could incorporate an element of community service into my coursework, while also giving students the benefit of real-world work experience.”

Noce concedes she had an ulterior motive in forming Partnership Erie.

“I wanted students to learn about the enormous challenges that some people face,” Noce said, “and I wanted them to become good citizens who give back.”

It worked, even inspiring some students to take on personal volunteer projects for their clients outside of the classroom. She regularly hears from alumni who thank her for introducing them to the personal satisfaction to be found in helping others.

In addition to Boys and Girls Club of Erie, Noce volunteers at the Quality of Life Learning Center, the Islamic Center, Butterflies for Kids, Erie Youth Leadership Institute, and the Italian-American Women’s Association, in addition to other organizations.

In twenty years working with the Boys and Girls Club of Erie, Noce said she has witnessed firsthand the powerful impact of community service.

“Sometimes, you’ll see these kids come in and the deck is stacked against them,” she said. “They have parents who are largely absent or have substance abuse problems. They are living in poverty. They’re hungry. And you think, ‘This kid doesn’t have a future.’ But he starts coming to the club and there are people there who care about him and help him and watch out for him and he comes out a different person.”

“I’ve worked with kids at the club who I thought had a bleak future who have become doctors, teachers, and lawyers,” she said. “because somebody cared and provide a safe place for them to grow and learn.”

Noce is grateful for the opportunity to serve.

“I’ve led a blessed life,” she said, “so If I can help someone in need, my life is richer and I feel like I’m fulfilling my purpose for being here.