Penn State announces Peace Corps Prep certificate program

By Heather Cass
Publications Manager, Office of Strategic Communications, Penn State Behrend

Did you know that the Peace Corps, the international volunteer service organization, would not have come into being without college students?

“During the 1960 presidential election, John F. Kennedy made a late-night stop at the campus of the University of Michigan,” said Jonathan Hall, associate teaching professor of physics at Penn State Behrend. “He made an off-hand remark inquiring whether the college students there would be willing to serve in a developing country. It would have been a forgotten campaign speech, except that the students organized and sent a petition with hundreds of signatures asking for the opportunity to serve others and their country.”

Hall served after his undergraduate years, and his time in the corps remains a transformative life experience, so much so that forty years later, he regularly encourages Behrend students to consider joining, helps raise awareness of the organization on campus, and staffs a recruiting table at Behrend’s twice-yearly Career and Internship Fair.

“The Peace Corps is a great opportunity to learn about another culture, to develop one’s talents, and to be of service to people in a developing nation,” Hall said. “An example of the impact possible is Alejando Toledo, the former President of Peru, who said ‘I am one of sixteen brothers and sisters. Born in extreme, extreme poverty… I’m the first president of indigenous descent who had been democratically elected in 500 years in South America. To a large extent thanks to the Peace Corps.’”

“While none of my former students in Malaysia became a president,” Hall said, “I did help the children of subsistence farmers and fishermen become teachers and nurses who in turn contributed to education and health care in places where it was scarce.”

Hall is proof that the Peace Corps stays with you. A few years ago, he even returned to Borneo to catch up with some of his former students.

That’s why he’s excited about a new partnership between the Peace Corp and Penn State to offer a preparatory program for students interested in volunteering.

Peace Corps Prep is a certificate program for undergraduate students of any major. Students who participate in the program gain skills and experiences that make them attractive candidates for the corps or any form of international or service work. The inaugural cohort will begin this fall semester.

Accepted students will build their coursework around one of six strategic competencies that the Peace Corps seeks in its volunteers. The program requires students to complete a set number of field hours in their chosen competency area, take globally minded classes, show language competency, and engage in career-related activities.

Interested students are required to complete an online interest form by October 16, 2020 to be considered for the inaugural cohort. Program requirements, application information, and more can be found at https://studentsaffairs.psu.edu/career/peace-corps-prep.

While the certificate program does not guarantee acceptance in the Peace Corps, it will help to provide participants with a competitive advantage.

ABOUT THE PEACE CORPS

Peace Corps mission: to promote world peace and friendship by fulfilling three goals:

  • To help the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women.
  • To help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served.
  • To help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.

Volunteers serve for twenty-seven months in areas such as health, education, environment, agriculture, community economic development, and youth in development.

Jonathan Hall and Wan Masa
Jonathan Hall, associate teaching professor of physics at Penn State Behrend, and a former colleague, Wan Masa, who taught with Hall in North Borneo forty years ago.

PLET student travel to Germany — final report

Guest Post by Lauren Hampton, Plastics Engineering Technology major

No matter how vivid the photos or descriptive the lecture, there’s nothing quite like seeing and experiencing another country in person. And, in today’s increasingly global business climate, it’s vital that students be versed in the culture and business practices of international partners. There is much to be learned from seeing how others do it. That’s why, every year, students in the Plastics Engineering Technology (PLET) program have the opportunity to travel overseas to visit plastics companies and universities and attend a plastics trade show, too.

On Thursday, Oct. 17th, a group of PLET majors embarked on an 11-day trip to Germany. We asked student Lauren Hampton to keep a travel log and tell us about the trip. Here is her final report on the experience: 

Day 9 — Friday

Today, we visited Rosenheim University of Applied Sciences. They have a plastics engineering program similar to the one we have at Penn State. Additionally, students from both Penn State Plastics Engineering Technology and Rosenheim Plastics Engineering can participate in a semester study abroad program at the respective school. During our visit, we had a wonderful tour of their labs and got lots of information about the different research projects they are currently working on.

After our tour at Rosenheim, students had a free afternoon in Munich. Some toured the Allianz Arena where FC Bayern Munich plays. Others explored the city.

Group Photo at RosenheimStudents at Allianz ArenaStudents at Allianz Arena

Day 10 — Saturday

Today, we had a free day in Munich and it was our last (non-travel) day of the trip. Students did a variety of activities during the day. A couple of students visited Eagle’s Nest. Others went to some museums and went shopping in Marienplatz. In the evening, we had a group dinner at Schneider Bräuhaus.

Students at Eagle’s Nest

Students at Eagle’s Nest.

Glockenspiel at Marienplatz

Glockenspiel at Marienplatz.

Parting thoughts

I would like to give a special thanks to all of the faculty members—Jon Meckley, Dr. Gary F. Smith, Lucy Lenhardt, and Dr. Israd Jaafar—who took us on this once-in-a-lifetime trip. I can say on behalf of all of the students, we had a wonderful time and this is an experience that we will remember and cherish for many years to come.

Auf Wiedersehen, Deutschland!

 

PLET Students travel to Germany — Travel Log #2

Guest Post by Lauren Hampton, Plastics Engineering Technology major

No matter how vivid the photos or descriptive the lecture, there’s nothing quite like seeing and experiencing another country in person. And, in today’s increasingly global business climate, it’s vital that students be versed in the culture and business practices of international partners. There is much to be learned from seeing how others do it. That’s why, every year, students in the Plastics Engineering Technology (PLET) program have the opportunity to travel overseas to visit plastics companies and universities and attend a plastics trade show, too.

On Thursday, Oct. 17th, a group of PLET majors embarked on an 11-day trip to Germany. We asked student Lauren Hampton to keep a travel log and tell us about the trip. Here is her report latest report from Germany:

Day 6 — Tuesday

Today, we toured the Mercedes Benz engine plant in Stuttgart. We learned about the company’s history in the Neckar Valley. The afternoon was spent doing various activities. Students toured museums, visited landmarks, and explored the town.

at Mercedes

Students at the Mercedes engine plant in Stuttgart.

Birkenkopf

Students at Birkenkopf.

Dr. Smith and Cake

Dr. Smith likes cake. 

Day 7 — Wednesday

Today we toured Arburg, a prominent injection molding machine manufacturer. Following the tour, we traveled to Füssen. In Füssen, students went out for dinner and explored the town afterwards. Throughout the day, we rode on a total of seven trains – which is a lot of trains, if you ask me.

Group Photo at Arburg

Group photo at Arburg.

Happy Train Travelers featuring Dr. Smith, Dr. Jaafar, and Ryan Malatesta (Rye Bread)

Happy train travelers — Dr. Smith, Dr. Jaafar, and Ryan Malatesta.

Mr. Meckley

The lonely traveler: Mr. Meckley.

students at dinner

Students at dinner.

Day 8 — Thursday

Today we hiked up to Neuschwanstein Castle. We had a private tour inside the castle and then explored the surrounding area. Some went shopping while others hiked up Säuling Mountain.  Then, we travelled to Munich – our final destination.

neuschwanstein castle

Group photo at Neuschwanstein Castle.

Dr. Jaafar at the top of Säuling Mountain

Dr. Jaafar at the top of Säuling Mountain.

 

 

PLET students travel to Germany – Travel Log #1

Guest Post by Lauren Hampton, Plastics Engineering Technology major

No matter how vivid the photos or descriptive the lecture, there’s nothing quite like seeing and experiencing another country in person. And, in today’s increasingly global business climate, it’s vital that students be versed in the culture and business practices of international partners. There is much to be learned from seeing how others do it. That’s why, every year, students in the Plastics Engineering Technology (PLET) program have the opportunity to travel overseas to visit plastics companies and universities and attend a plastics trade show, too.

On Thursday, Oct. 17th, a group of PLET majors embarked on an 11-day trip to Germany. We asked student Lauren Hampton to keep a travel log and tell us about the trip. Here is her report from the first five days:

DAY 1 — Thursday, Oct. 17

Day One… Here we go! All the professors showed up to the airport bright-eyed and bushy-tailed (specifically Mr. Meckley rocking his flip-flops and plaid cargo shorts). However, the students were slightly less bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. Some would say they looked like zombies. Nevertheless, everyone was excited and raring to go!

first flight

First Flight

The first flight went very well. Most slept, some listened to music. Then… DUN DUN DUNNNNNNNNN…. THE. EIGHT. HOUR. LAYOVER. Below are some of the activities students chose to participate in to pass the time, including: homework, card games, chit-chat, and of-course some sleep.

layover homework

Homework! Of course!

 card games

Card games

Days 2 & 3 — Friday & Saturday

We arrived in Cologne (Köln), Germany early Friday morning. We had two free days in the city. During that time, we explored the city, ate lots of good German food, and took in all the beautiful views.

cologne

Cologne Cathedral and the Rhein River (Awesome Photo Taken by Dr. Jaafar!)

gelato

Jon Meckley, associate professor of engineering, with gelato. 

cathedra

Cologne Cathedral

jaafar and pretzel

Dr. Israd Jaafar, assistant teaching professor of engineering, and a giant pretzel. 

Day 4 – Sunday

We attended the K Show in Düsseldorf – the world’s number one tradeshow for plastics and rubber. We visited a number of companies and learned many new things!

smith and meckley with race car

Dr. Gary F. Smith, assistant professor of engineer, and Mr. Meckley with a Race Car at the K Show

interacting with lifting machine

Interacting with Lifting Machine

 

stduents at K show

Students at the K Show

Day 5 — Monday

We attended our second day at the K Show.  We met with companies and got to see the new generation of molding machines!  Then, we hopped on a two-and-one-half-hour train ride to Stuttgart.  We arrived in Stuttgart around dinner time and spent the evening relaxing and getting ready for our next tour.

virtual reality of the K show

Virtual Reality at the K Show  (Inside of a Blow Molding Machine)

group pix at the train station

Group Photo at the train station. 

NEXT: The PLET students will tour the Mercedes Benz engine assembly plant followed by tours of the Mercedes Benz and Porche Museums. Then, they’ll visit several other cities in Germany before ending in Munich where they will tour the University of Applied Sciences Rosenheim.  We’ll post updates from Lauren as they arrive.

 

 

Students witness history in the making in Europe

By Heather Cass, Publications Manager, Penn State Behrend

The United States is not the only nation going through a politically tumultuous time. Great Britain’s vote to leave the European Union (Brexit) has implications politically and globally.

On the other hand, Brexit has not diminished the EU’s attractiveness and importance for other countries that want membership or a closer relationship with the organization. Among these countries are Ukraine, which has been adopting constitutional changes, reforming trade, energy, and fiscal policy; and obtaining visa-free travel rights to Europe at large.

It is an interesting juxtaposition that eleven Penn State Behrend students enrolled in PLSC 499 Foreign Study Government are experiencing firsthand on a fifteen-day study abroad experience in London and in Kyiv, Ukraine. The students, led by Dr. Chris Harben, assistant teaching professor of management, and Dr. Lena Surzhko-Harned, assistant teaching professor of political science, left for London on May 12 and will travel until May 27.

While there, the group will have the opportunity to meet with representatives of transnational companies, lawmakers, members of the press, and more.

Students will meet with three members of Parliament: Lord David Hunt of the House of Lords, and the Honorable Luke Graham and Honorable Nick Boles who are both members of the House of Commons.

“Boles will be very interesting to meet with because he’s been outspoken on the matter of Brexit and, in fact, recently resigned from the Conservative Party,” Harben said. “He is a widely recognizable personality in Parliament and will provide unique insight to our students.”

Harben said that it is a particularly opportune time to visit London.

“On Thursday, May 16, students will attend the Debates in the House of Commons,” he said. “The timing is wonderful as Brexit is likely to be a topic of debate on that day given the elections for the European Parliament coming up less than two weeks later.”

Surzhko-Harned, a Ukraine native, described the course as an incredible chance for students to understand the interworking of the EU and the trading block’s economic and political power in Europe and globally.

“They will be witnessing history in the making and hearing about it directly from politicians and other leaders in Great Britain and Ukraine,” she said. “They will also be able to experience the atmosphere and culture in which these events are taking place. That’s not something they could gain by observing events from across the pond.”

For updates on the trip, you can follow Harben’s YouTube channel or follow Suzhko-Harned on Instagram or Twitter.

London and Ukraine trip.

Students met with Lord David Hunt, center, of the House of Lords on Monday, May 13. Dr. Chris Harben, far right, said the meeting far exceeded their expectations. “Lord Hunt met with us for a private question-and-answer session in the robing room at Westminster Place where the Queen will prepare when she opens the session of the House of Lords,” Harben reported. “Hunt then invited us to watch the House of Lords in action as they discussed regulations regarding agriculture in anticipation of Brexit, and then gave us access to watch the House of Commons from a special viewing area that is not open to the public.”

 

Guest Post: Alternative Spring Break in Puerto Rico

pix 5

Last week, two dozen students and four advisers from Penn State Behrend participated in an Alternative Spring Break service trip to Puerto Rico. The group helped residents recover from the catastrophic flooding that occurred as a result of Hurricane Maria, a category 5 hurricane which devastated the area in 2017, causing billions of dollars in damages and claiming nearly 3,000 lives in Puerto Rico. Here is a reflection on the week’s activities from one of the participants.

By Alex Siernerth

Junior Marketing major, ASB board member and ASB trip participant

On our first day in Puerto Rico, we stopped at a local BBQ for lunch and had our first taste of Puerto Rican cuisine, which was wonderful! We stopped at a local Walmart for some supplies, then headed to the camp to get settled. We stayed at Campamento Yuquibo which was in the El Yunque National Forest.

On the second day of the trip, we began our service. We headed to a part of the El Yunque where Hurricane Maria had stripped the natural canopy from parts of the forest. Strong grasses and vines took over the hiking trails. We worked to remove the excess brush to expand the trails.

On the third day, we split into teams to paint houses that had suffered external damage from the hurricane. One team rolled a fresh coat of orange onto a home, while another worked to paint a new house, which was built after the hurricane destroyed the original home.

The fourth day was spent finishing up the painting of the orange house and cleaning up. Another team painted the kitchen of a nearby home where the walls had been re-plastered due to water damage. The final group spent the day working on landscaping.

Our last day of service was spent at the Natural Reserve Cabezas de San Juan. We learned lot about the post-hurricane reforestation efforts that are being undertaken to revitalize the plant and wildlife in the area. We helped to tag young trees and tend to the newly planted ones by spreading mulch and watering them.

On our cultural day, we were able to explore coral reefs and learn about the ecosystem that they exist in. Snorkeling in the beautiful Puerto Rican waters allowed us to get an up-close-and-personal feel for the sea creatures and other wildlife. A friendly dolphin even paid us a visit.

We had a few hours before leaving for the airport, so we explored Old San Juan.

It was such an amazing experience being able to meet and interact with the kind, resilient people of Puerto Rico. The Behrend students took every opportunity with smiles on their faces and love in their hearts.

We are grateful to all the donors and others who made this service trip possible.

 

Conferences offer opportunities for students

Industry conferences and annual meetings are a vital resource for professionals, allowing them to come together and learn about the latest research and innovation in their fields of study.

They are a valuable learning experience for students, too, offering them the chance to present their research work and to make connections with industry professionals.

Three Penn State Behrend Psychology students—Mason McGuire, Tiffany Eichler, and Mitchell Weber—recently attended the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society’s conference in Philadelphia with Dr. Heather Lum, assistant professor of psychology.

While there, the students presented posters reflecting their research work about virtual reality in gaming and whether playing Pokeman can improve spatial recognition.

“Participating in poster sessions really helps them develop the softer skills of psychology, like talking about their research and explaining the methods and findings,” Lum said. “It’s important that they be able to communicate what they have learned.”

During the three-day event, students attended a variety of seminars and talks, including a panel discussion with Lum and recent psychology alumna, Grace Waldfogle, who is a graduate student at the University of Central Florida.

Two other Behrend Psychology alumni—Richard Greatbatch and Jacob Benedict—also graduate students, were at the conference, too.

The alumni and students met up after the conference for an informal Penn State Behrend reunion of sorts.

“The interesting thing is that all of three of the alums made their first contact with their chosen graduate school at this conference when they attended the conference as undergraduate Behrend students,” Lum said.

“That’s why I like to bring students to professional conferences,” she said. “Not only does it expose them to the world of psychology and the jobs available in the field, but it also gets their name out there.”

The students travel was funded by grants from the School of Humanities and Social Sciences and Penn State University.

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PLET students’ final days in Denmark, Sweden

Guest Post by Molly Joyce, senior Plastics Engineering Technology major

No matter how vivid the photos or descriptive the lecture, there’s nothing quite like seeing and experiencing another country in person. And, in today’s increasingly global business climate, it’s vital that students be versed in the culture and business practices of international partners. There is much to be learned from seeing how others do it. That’s why, every year, students in the Plastics Engineering Technology (PLET) program have the opportunity to travel overseas to visit plastics companies and universities and attend a plastics trade show, too.

On Thursday, Oct. 18th, a group of PLET majors embarked on an 11-day trip to Denmark and Sweden. We asked student Molly Joyce to keep a travel log and tell us about the trip. Here is her report from the group’s final days:

Day 7 — Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Today was the ScanPack Trade show, which was just a few blocks away from our hostel. ScanPack is Scandinavia’s biggest trade fair for the packaging industry. As PLET students, we enjoyed free admission and we were quickly off in small groups to talk to some companies and learn about different career options.

My group made an effort to talk to some companies that were not plastics companies so that we could learn about other industries and see the logic or their reasoning for using other materials. For example, we talked to a company that manufactures motors for machines used in packaging or secondary operations and it was really neat to learn about the mechanics and the different types available.

It was also interesting to note that many companies are trying to go green and make their packaging more environmentally friendly. This is something that we have noticed is a large part of the culture over here. They have a lot of recycling bins for different materials and separate them, as opposed to the single stream recycling that we are used to in the United States.

PLET10

Students at ScanPack show

Day 8 — Thursday, October 25, 2018

We traveled from Gothenburg to Stockholm today. It was about a three-hour train ride. This transportation was nice because it was the fast track and had few stops and reserved seating. We did not, however, know that you had to reserve the seating so Mr. Meckley was running around 15 minutes before the train left to get us seats. It worked out and he ended up with 5 minutes to spare, but it was a little hectic. Good thing there were only nine of us because I imagine that would have been a lot more difficult with thirty people. When we got there, we checked into our hostel and set about roaming the new city and had a late lunch. I had Swedish meatballs because it only made sense. Then we explored the medieval museum.

Day 9 — Friday, October 26, 2018

Today, we were supposed to visit SSAB steel but they were closed due to maintenance issues. So we had a free day in Stockholm, which was nice because there is a lot to explore in this city and two-and-one-half days still wasn’t enough.

We toured the Vasa museum which was absolutely incredible. It had the world’s only rescued 17th century ship. We were doing well in Copenhagen using public transportation, but today….not so much. Luck was not in our favor and we may have gone the wrong way a few times and gotten off at the wrong location a time or two.  However, in the end, we ended up where we needed to be.

PLET9

Day 10 — Saturday, October 27, 2018

Today was our last day. We tried to pack in as much as we could. Both groups visited Skyview, which takes you in a globe on top of the world’s largest spherical building to get a view of the city. Then we went to Vikingaliv to see Viking culture and what life was like. It was really neat to see what they ate, how they built their houses, and just overall what life was like. Today was the final supper as well; all nine of us went to eat together. It was absolutely delicious!

plet8

Day 11 — Sunday, October 28, 2018

Today was a very long travel day. After breakfast, we made a trek to the airport—walking, then a train, then another train. We got through security pretty easily, then we had a three-hour flight to Iceland with a short layover. Then we had another six-hour flight plane ride to Toronto. Once we landed, we spent about an hour getting through customs and such until we got to our final leg — a three-hour car ride from Toronto to Erie. We arrived home around midnight.

Final thoughts

Overall, this was an excellent experience that I think every student who has the opportunity should take. Plastics are a global thing, and different countries have different priorities or systems that we can use to further advance our industry in the United States. Getting the chance to experience different cultures and to learn from them is an excellent way to broaden your knowledge as an engineer.

I would like to give a special thank you, despite all the sass, to Mr. Jon Meckley, associate professor of engineering, and Dr. Gary Smith, lecturer in engineering, for all the hard work they put in to make this a memorable experience for us.

~ Molly

PLET students explore Denmark, Sweden

Guest Post by Molly Joyce, senior Plastics Engineering Technology major

No matter how vivid the photos or descriptive the lecture, there’s nothing quite like seeing and experiencing another country in person. And, in today’s increasingly global business climate, it’s vital that students be versed in the culture and business practices of international partners. There is much to be learned from seeing how others do it. That’s why, every year, students in the Plastics Engineering Technology (PLET) program have the opportunity to travel overseas to visit plastics companies and universities and attend a plastics trade show, too.

On Thursday, Oct. 18th, a group of PLET majors embarked on an 11-day trip to Denmark and Sweden. We asked student Molly Joyce to keep a travel log and tell us about the trip. Here is her report from the first three days:

Day 1 Thursday, October 18th, 2018

Today was a travel day. Our first leg was driving to the Toronto International airport. We then departed from Toronto, Canada, and flew to Copenhagen, Denmark, with a layover in Reykjavik, Iceland. We enjoyed sleep and movies on the plane and played cards during our layovers.

Day 2 Friday, October 19th, 2018

Today was our first day in Copenhagen. We arrived around noon and after a quick trip from the train station to the hostel, we were then free to explore the city. Since we are a smaller group of seven students, we had our first meal together in a little Danish cafe. After, we enjoyed a canal tour of the city. Then we visited Tivoli Gardens, an amusement park in the city, which was decorated for Halloween.

Day 3 Saturday, October 20th, 2018

Today was a free day for the students, so after breakfast we broke off into smaller groups to explore the city. Both groups were able to witness the changing of the guard at Amalienborg Palace.

Next, we ventured into Rosenborg Palace where we saw how the royals back in the 1500’s lived and Christiansborg Palace where we saw the ruins, the kitchen, and the royal stables. We also visited The Little Mermaid statue that was gift from a Danish Icelandic sculptor to Denmark.

One group rented bikes to be able to tour more of the city. That group ventured into Christiana. Another group climbed the Round Tower for an aerial city view and visited Kastellet.

PLET trip3

Rosenborg Castle

PLET trip - crown

Christian IV’s Crown from 1596

PLET trip - little mermaid

Erik Steinnmetz, Molly Joyce, and Dalton Scott at the Little Mermaid statue

PLET trip4

Erik Steinmetz, Dalton Scott, and Molly Joyce at the Gustavskirken Church

PLET trip 5

Chris Vrana, Curtis Boggs, Collin Gilarno, and Scott Sada on a self-guided bike tour in Copenhagen.

NEXT: The PLET students will spend a few days in various Denmark cities and tour the LEGO factory before moving onto Gotenburg where they will attend the ScanPack Trade Show. After that, they are off to Stockholm, Sweden, where they will visit SSAB Steel.  We’ll post updates from Molly as they arrive.

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”!