Nov. 19, 2008
LOGAN, Utah - Mention travel to student-athletes, and no doubt you'll get a cringe from more than a few of them. Long plane trips, uncomfortable bus rides and nights spent in a cramped hotel room aren't usually at the top of the student-athlete's highlight list.
Don't complain to senior volleyball player Heather Hillier, though. The trip to Ruston, La., is child's play compared to the journey she recently took.
This past summer, Hillier traveled to Tanzania, a country on the eastern coast of Africa, to help further the work of Yared Fabusa, a doctoral student at Utah State University. Fabusa is organizing the formation of the Gombe School of Environmental Society, which will help educate Tanzanians in receiving education on post high school and university levels.
"It's a really cool idea that he has," Hillier said. "They'll learn about better farming practices to get more out of the land, and they'll learn about creating your own livelihood."
For Hillier, an international studies major, the opportunity to travel to Africa was one she couldn't pass up. She said she didn't experience quite the culture shock she thought she would after arriving in Tanzania, but being in one of the poorest countries in the world was definitely an eye-opening experience.
"When I first got there, it was kind of a strange feeling, because this was where I'd been wanting to go for so long," she said. "It was interesting. It's one of the poorest countries in the world, and I thought, 'Here I am right in the midst of all these people, these are the statistics I hear about.' But it was interesting to see what the people are like there."
While the trip to Tanzania definitely required an adjustment for Hillier, it was one she had been prepared to make. Although she'd never lived in conditions even close to those she experienced in Africa, she did learn how to adjust to new surroundings after moving from her native Canada to Logan four years ago. While the culture found in Utah took some getting used to, Hillier said she was able to get comfortable with the state pretty quick.
"When I first came on my recruiting trip, my mom and the assistant coach were talking about things, and they mentioned LDS," she said. "I was like, `What is that?' I knew what Mormons were, but I didn't know that LDS was Mormon. But it was just minor little things like that, and I caught on quickly."
Another adjustment came when her role on the volleyball team changed to more of a utility role, one she wasn't used to from her previous club experience in high school.
"I started volleyball and serious club play kind of late, but I was lucky because the starting setter quit and I was just forced right into it," she said. "From then on, I was really successful. I was the only setter and I was always good. But then I came here, and didn't even set my freshman year, and it's been kind of tough adjusting to my role. But it's good, I've embraced it."
That adjustment to her role and continual improvement hasn't gone unnoticed by her coaches.
"She's developed into one of the best servers in the league, and that's been through a lot of repetition and a lot of hard work," head coach Grayson DuBose said. "That's one thing I'll always say about Heather, she always works as hard as any kid I've been around to make the most of her athletic ability. She sets, she can defend, she can do a bunch of things well. She's a really nice utility player for what we're trying to do. She comes in as a serving specialist, stays in the background and plays a lot of defense."
Yet just being a leader on the court and an example to her teammates wasn't enough for Hillier. She said her trip to Africa helped her grow in many areas, such as learning from the Tanzanian's example of hard work and dedication to life.
"Everyone there was just so beautiful and happy," she said. "The big thing I learned is that these destitute people that we learn about, there's a lot more to them than just their poverty. They're amazing people. They have so many other things going for them. It's not just about living on under $1 a day, because they're able to farm and do other things."
She's also been able to take some of those lessons and apply them on the court, as working with the Tanzanian people helped her to understand what she called "group dynamics," or learning to communicate and work together with a group of people.
So as Hillier's career with the Aggie volleyball squad nears its end, it's something that she's okay with. While she did say she'll miss the competition and thrill that comes from playing the sport, her experience in Africa has given her motivation to make a difference and a goal to look forward to.
"It really helped to live in a different country and adjust to everything," she said. "It's consolidated my thinking. I really want to do graduate work in development studies."