2015 Grad Reflects on Teaching Abroad

Augustana University graduate Leah Hiller spent a year teaching abroad.

2015 graduate Leah Hiller (center), joined by a few of her students from the Tobal Elementary School, located on the Island of Tobal, an island of the Marshall Islands.

To say Leah Hiller has had an interesting year is, well, just a ridiculous understatement.

Last summer, the 2015 Augustana grad swallowed her fears, said her goodbyes, and boarded a plane bound for the Marshall Islands, a collection of 29 coral atolls in the Pacific Ocean west of Hawaii and near the equator.

She spent the next 11 months living on the island of Tobal – a tropical place with no running water, no plumbing and solar-powered electricity – teaching second through eighth graders through an organization called WorldTeach, a nonprofit dedicated to providing volunteer teachers to developing countries.

In July, she’ll return to the island to begin her second year of teaching. While she was back in the U.S. in June, we caught up with her to learn more about her experiences.

Q. Can you tell us about your journey after graduation?

A. In the spring of my senior year, I wasn’t sure what I was going to do after graduation. A friend was going to teach abroad and encouraged me to consider doing it as well. I was terrified of teaching. But, I thought maybe it would be a good thing to face my fears head on.

I also really wanted to travel abroad again. As a senior I had studied in at the University of the South Pacific in Fiji for a semester. I also studied in Italy over J-term during my sophomore year.

I applied to WorldTeach and volunteered to go to the most difficult place – I wanted to try it and I felt like I would be good at it. I signed up to go to the Marshall Islands.

The program was fully funded – I received transportation to and from the country, a living space with a host family, food and insurance.

The capitol city, Majuro, is the big city center. There, people drive cars, and there are grocery stores with many choices. For the most part, if you need something, you can find it there.

The outer islands – where I was – are completely different. The local stores have canned meat, flour or sugar, but that’s about it. There’s not a lot of extras. If you miss out, you need to wait for the next boat to come a few months later.

"The reality is, it turns out that as long as you have water and food and feel physically safe, you’re able to have a good time. It helped that it was gorgeous there, too."

— Leah Hiller '15

There was an Ethernet cord at the school I worked at. So we had access to the internet sometimes. You could send mail if you gave it to the airline pilot. He’d take it to the major city and bring it to the post office.

Q. What did you teach?

A. I taught second grade through eighth grade – English and seventh-grade math. I taught my classes in English and I’m learning to speak Marshallese.

Q. So, did you finally overcome your fear of teaching?

A. Yes. Eventually.

Q. You were a biology major at Augustana. What led you to pursue that?

A. I liked it and I thought it would be useful. I came in as a nursing major. During Bio 120, I was studying for the ecology unit and it became clear to me that that’s what I enjoyed the most. Knowing what I learned has proved useful in so many ways – I know how to research; I know how to question things.

Q. What surprised you most about the past year? Or, what have you learned about yourself over the last year?

A. There were a lot of surprises. I was surprised at how well I was able to take my liberal arts education and use it while teaching English. I minored in Classics and I also took Latin. That helped me so much with teaching English grammar.

I even found ways to use what I learned in my ceramics class. The same way I learned to roll the clay in class is the same rolling method the Marshallese people use to preserve breadfruit.

In an environment where you don’t have a lot of resources or ways to look things up, I could always fall back on the foundation of knowledge I gained from my Augustana education.

With regard to myself, I surprised myself by doing these things. For me, there was a lack of self-confidence before. I never pictured myself doing something like this. I learned that if I want to do it, I can do it.

The whole year was a huge learning experience. The culture is so different from the U.S. – I learned to look at things from a completely different point of view, how to interpret what the people are saying or doing, and how to respond in different situations.

"Most importantly, I leaned that I don’t want to be the person that says ‘Oh, I want to do that someday.’
I want to be the person that goes and does it."

— Leah Hiller '15

Q. You’re going back for another year of teaching? What led you to go back?

A. Yes, I’m going back. I want to improve on last year and make this year even better. I get to teach science next year. I have five bags of supplies to bring with me. They’ve never done an in-class experiment before – I’m looking forward to that.

Q. What does the future hold for you?

A. To me, it’s really open for me. I’ve been looking at other teaching opportunities abroad. I’ve looked at opportunities in Japan and Europe. I’d like to be abroad again. I like going and staying somewhere for a while – where you can learn the culture and the language.