By Bailey Wolff ’10
For this issue of the Eastern magazine, we caught up with four of our alumni who have followed their passion on different continents, connecting with deep meaning and working in capacities that they find truly rewarding. Through a mix of determination, good timing and a clear vision for themselves, each of these Eagles has carved out a life that not only fulfills them but that also enriches the lives of others.
Paula Meehan ’83 – Ireland, Europe
Paula Meehan was born in 1955 and raised in the working-class district of Dublin, Ireland. She first came to Cheney in 1981. “I was writing poetry and had started showing it about,” said Meehan. “James J. McAuley (then a professor at Eastern) brought a group of his students to Dublin and encouraged me to come over and study writing and to teach with a fellowship.”
Already familiar with the poets of the Northwest – Gary Snyder, Theodore Roethke, Richard Hugo and Carolyn Kizer – the opportunity to study at EWU represented a chance to get closer to some of these writers who were her deepest influences.
Immediately, Meehan felt the impact of Washington’s extraordinary beauty in her soul. “In Ireland, our Bronze Age stories from 4,000 to 5,000 years ago are warrior stories of interaction with bears and wolves and salmon. When I came to Washington state, an area that had only been colonized 150 years earlier, I felt that I was seeing parts of my own ancient history in fresher states. Things that were strange and exotic in ancient Irish tradition were fresh and alive in the Northwest.”
She describes the dance of a Spokane Indian at a powwow near the river as “one of the most amazing experiences” of her life. “I felt very privileged after seeing that.” Yipping coyotes and the trails of Turnbull opened her heart to energies that she had not directly experienced before. Her poetry soon reflected this reverence.
“If you take a poem and say it from beginning to end and say the long lines and wonderful expressions, by the time you come to the end you will have changed; the physical enactment of saying the poem changes who you are in the world.” For Meehan, the Northwest was a living poem. She inhaled the breadth of the mountains and exhaled the energy of the rivers. She spoke the long lines of the coastline and gave expression to the contemplative lakes. Completing her Master of Fine Arts degree in poetry at EWU strengthened her connection to the wild places of Washington and their expression in her work.
Eastern also influenced her teaching style and the literary editing technique practiced at Willow Springs, a small literary press housed in EWU’s Inland Northwest Center for Writers in Spokane. “My teaching style is relaxed. The atmosphere in the workshop is casual and the students should feel comfortable but also very focused so that the poems can exert their power.” Reading the poem out loud, Meehan shares, is the way the work should be enjoyed. In class she enforces this technique which brings the poems to life.
Poems, Meehan says, are separate entities from the person who writes them. “If you have children, you make them and they go out in the world and do what they will do. You trust that part of yourself that’s making poetry will stand on its own, too. It goes on its own and lives [without you]. People find in poetry what they need to find.”
Meehan now lives in Ireland and looks back on her time at Eastern fondly. She remembers people like Sue Ehama, secretary to the English Department, who worked hard to make international students, living so far from home, feel welcome in the program. Through the guidance of faculty like Jim McAuley, and friendship with writers like John Keeble, as well as the support of fellow graduate students, Meehan found the loving community that helped shape her universal, poetic voice. In September 2013, she was announced as Ireland Professor of Poetry and “informal poet laureate” at Trinity College, Dublin. She currently teaches at Trinity; Queen’s University, Belfast and University College, Dublin.
For more information, bibliography and essays on her poetry and plays, visit muse.jhu.edu/journals/an_sionnach/toc/current.html. Meehan’s work is available from Wake Forest University Press.
Cody Harder ’13 – Madagascar, Africa
Cody Harder, 25, is originally from Cheney, but he considers Kenya his second home. He first traveled to this country in 2008 as part of an African Inland Mission (AIM) trip. In 2009, he returned and lived through a drought that convinced him Africa was where he wanted to direct the energy of his life’s work.
The Cheney Faith Center was the first recipient of Harder’s servant’s spirit. Next he volunteered with the Spokane Police Department, in their Explorer Program, where he rode along with police officers and learned about their procedures. But volunteering in Africa was what really opened his eyes to the possibilities of service that are available in the world. “It was during that second trip to Africa that things changed,” said Harder. “I realized I could serve not only domestically but also abroad. [I realized that] the will to serve others can be exported across boundaries.”
Harder was caught off guard when the water ran out at the orphanage where he was volunteering. “All of the tanks dried up and the children had to walk five kilometers into the mountains to collect water. Along with their chores, along with their homework, along with their devotions, they would go before and after school to collect water for the village. It’s hard to explain – seeing what these kids went through on a daily basis affected me on whole different level. It was a two-month period that really changed my life.”
Following this trip to Kenya, he returned to Eastern knowing that he wanted to pursue international relations so that he could help change the lives of the people with whom he’d formed relationships in Africa.
Professors such as Dorothy Zeisler-Vralsted and Vandana Asthana in the EWU international relations program, encouraged Harder to think for himself and pursue his goal of working abroad. “They helped me apply for internships and continued to mentor me as I traveled back and forth between Africa and the States,” said Harder.
Harder’s sixth trip to Africa was with the State Department of the United States. Interested in how his superiors got their jobs in the embassy, he asked around and learned that many of them had first been Peace Corps volunteers. He also met with a lot of current volunteers who were working in the country and who shared his desire to work abroad while serving the needs of Africa.
The next logical step was for Harder to become a volunteer. The 27-month commitment seemed the perfect way to really immerse himself in a grassroots African experience.
One provision of Peace Corps service is that volunteers don’t have a choice where they work. A person applies, goes through a rigorous application process, and if accepted, is placed according to the needs of Peace Corps rather than an individual preference. Nonetheless, Harder says, “I had my mind and heart set on Africa. If it wasn’t Africa, I would have told them no.”
As fate would have it, Harder was sent to Madagascar, a short 240 miles away from the Kenyan village where he experienced that life-changing drought. “I was really excited when I received this invitation. Madagascar is a wonderful country; and I am still blessed to be close to Kenya.”
When his English teaching commitment with the Peace Corps ends in September 2015, Harder wants to study international economic development at Fordham, in New York City. The program will connect him with diaspora communities from Africa and show him a different side to the very big problem he has dedicated his life to tackling. “After that,” said Harder, “I would like to go back to East Africa.”
“[Life so far] has opened my eyes up to so many things,” said Harder. “It’s hard to ignore someone once you get to know where they’ve come from and what they’ve been through on a personal level. It’s changed my heart and desire for what I want to do in the future.” Harder believes that as long as he follows his heart, the future will be waiting with many more exciting opportunities for him to grow and serve.
Carmen Dowling ’03 – Brazil, South America
After finishing her English degree at Eastern in 2003, Spokane native and Ferris High School graduate Carmen Dowling took a job with a London-based recruiting firm so that she could travel before starting her career. This job led to one with the international trade show logistics company TWI, for which she often went to China, Singapore, the Netherlands and England. Five years of this work made Dowling realize how much diversity is in the world.
“It was a very different work environment,” she said. “Working overseas always presents a different challenge, whether it be regulations, working-culture or language.” The traveling was great, but the work didn’t fulfill her. One day Dowling was looking out from the inside of a tour bus in Berlin, when she saw the U.S. embassy and had an epiphany.
“It hit me! There. I want to work there. I had no idea who worked at an embassy or what they did, but I knew if I worked there that I could do fulfilling work and see the world at the same time.”
A little research revealed that embassies are run by the State Department. Foreign Service Officers (FSOs) staff these embassies and support Americans abroad. They also promote the U.S.A.’s interests within the host country’s borders.
Dowling was not daunted by the less-than-2 percent acceptance rate of her chosen career path. Instead, she found confidence in her new desire and certainty. “Something was in store for me,” she reflects. “I have always been passionate about government and wanted to be involved, to make a difference.” Seeing the embassy was like looking into her future. She knew she would become an FSO.
The following spring, Dowling started a battery of tests and interviews. Below is an excerpt from her statement of purpose:
“I want to show the world that in so many ways we are more similar than different. Like most of the world’s people, at our core, Americans want to love our families, live safely and securely, worship as we please and have a say in how our lives are led.”
Competing for FSO spots were former Ivy Leaguers and lawyers making career moves. Dowling’s bachelor’s degree from EWU paled in comparison to master’s degrees from Harvard. Nevertheless, she passed all of her tests, succeeded in the interviews and was invited into the Foreign Service placement pool.
Once invited to be an officer, Dowling waited for placement. In order to improve her class ranking, she used vacation time from work to live in Turkey and learn Turkish. The State Department considers Turkish a ‘critical language’ – any candidate who speaks it gains points in the ranking system. She gained even more points because she also speaks Spanish.
In spite of her extra efforts, she was still at the mercy of the Foreign Service. If they didn’t place her in 18 months, her eligibility would expire and she would have to start the process over. “It felt a little like I was in limbo. You don’t know what is coming next so you’re just doing work in the meantime to see what happens.”
But in March of 2012, she was offered a position in the Foreign Service and after two months of training was assigned to Recife, Brazil. The career has been everything she hoped it would be.
“Recently I spoke (in Portuguese) at a graduation ceremony for forty-eight 15- and 16-year-old students. They are kids at a government-funded school who commute from surrounding, poorer districts. They just finished this school, which will help them study abroad. They were so thankful for this experience and appreciative that U.S. funding helped them to get this opportunity.”
At age 35, Dowling is a consular officer in the embassy in Recife. She interviews visa candidates looking to travel to the United States. She’s really on duty 24 hours a day. “I’m the first American that a lot of these people have ever met. I always talk to people, I am generally a friendly person.” She loves talking with her neighbors and informing them of their new rights under recently reformed Brazilian law. “Many people in Brazil don’t know that the laws have changed and that they have more freedoms today. It’s an exciting society.”
The FSO has turned out to be everything Dowling hoped it would be and she is very pleased with the career move she made two years ago. “Everywhere I go there is one thing that gets reinforced and that is people everywhere have more in common than we do differences. I am proud to represent my county. I think we have a lot to be proud of. I am happy to showcase that when I travel overseas.”
Ethan (Zhi) He ’11 – Canada, North America (by way of Beijing, China)
We have George Washington to thank for the fact that Ethan He chose EWU as the school he would attend on an exchange program from China. “I applied to Eastern because it sounded pretty cool with ‘Washington’ in the name. Also in China we take the ranking of a college very seriously. My Chinese University was ranked number 30 and I wanted to attend an American university that was ranked highly as well.” The Northwest region of America was ranked number 52 out of all geographic regions in the United States. He also picked Cheney because of its proximity to Spokane, the second largest city in the state.
Once in Cheney, everything seemed to work out in He’s favor. His first roommate was patient and willing to help him learn English. “I didn’t speak very well when I first arrived there.” They played chess and even practiced Chinese kung fu. In his two years at EWU he finished two degrees – one in finance and another in economics. He jokes that his 108 credits must have been some kind of record. “Had the school let me, I would have taken more classes.”
In Cheney, He also started working out. “My last roommate got me really interested in physical fitness. I actually never exercised when I lived in China. At EWU, I discovered my sporty spirit. I lost 50 pounds there.” The exercise component was the final change that rounded out He’s EWU education. He made great friends, received two degrees and awoke in himself a desire to get fit.
He’s exchange program lasted only two years. After that time, he had to go back to China. It was there that he wrote his thesis on the difference between American and Chinese power hierarchy, received his Chinese degree, got a job and gained back the 50 pounds.
He took a financial analyst position with a Wall Street bank, Moelis & Company in Beijing, and started working 100 hours per week. “My family helped me find the perfect job, but it was a cubic life. I had to follow every guidance they gave me. In America and Canada, I can be more free.”
Soon, He missed the energy and happiness he’d discovered within himself while living in Cheney. The 26-year-old made good money at the bank and was on track to become an executive. He had no time to do anything but work. The life reminded him of the one he lived before his first two years in America. He needed to change something.
What he did next surprised and disappointed his family. He applied to the University of Manitoba, in Winnipeg, Canada, to pursue a master’s degree in agricultural economics. He got in, and in May he will receive his degree after only one year of studying. He is also in the process of immigrating to Canada.
Since returning to North America, He has again started running and working out every day. He has even started swimming and will run the Manitoba marathon in June. He says it feels good to be closer to Cheney again where he really feels free to be himself.
“Eastern made me realize why life is important for me. I choose to live my life over the perfect job in China,” said He. “I found myself at Eastern.”