Erik Heinonen is a Master’s Student in International Relations at the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs at Yale University. From 2007 to 2009 he served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Moldova, where he taught health education and life skills courses at a village school in the Calarasi district. In Moldova he also co-directed a team-building and leadership training seminars for children, teens and young adults throughout the country, and co-managed the construction of a park and sports complex in Bravicea village. Erik also spent six months with the Peace Corps in Panama, teaching English and training English teachers, and in 2011 he directed a summer TOEFL and SAT preparation course for promising students from Kenya’s Rift Valley aspiring to attend university in the US. As an undergraduate at the University of Colorado, Heinonen was a member of the school’s track and field and cross country teams, and served as co-captain of the Buffaloes’ 2006 NCAA Champion cross country team.
What got you started in your field? How did you become interested in leadership training?
My dad was a women’s track and field and cross country coach at the University of Oregon for nearly 30 years, so I grew up around sports and learning what makes a good leader in that kind of setting. I had my own coaches too, along the way playing different sports. I learned a lot about how to lead from observation and my coach at the University of Colorado, Mark Wetmore, was an incredible leader, someone you absolutely never wanted to fail because you know how hard he worked for you, and cared about you as a person and while I was in college I had the chance to be a co-captain of our team, which was a great experience in terms of trying to be a leader among my peers.
Leadership and teamwork was an ideal I was around a lot. I saw these qualities by working as a journalist during college in a newsroom setting and participating in volunteer work and the Student Athletes Advisory Council at school And then as a Peace Corps volunteer in Moldova. I was teaching life skills and health education which in some ways, is very much like being a “life coach” given the kinds of topics we covered in class (e.g. decision making, communication, values, relationships, dealing with stress and emotions).
While I was in Moldova I applied and was accepted to be part of a small team building and leadership group run by volunteers called Haiduci. I got to spend the summer and weekends during the school year traveling around the country helping organize teambuilding and leadership for various groups of children, teens and adults and it was just so fulfilling to do these trainings that for most people were so novel and interesting, but to also get feedback that it helped them think about things in a different way.
Out of all of these, what is the accomplishment you are most proud of?
From my pre-Peace Corps life, it was winning the NCAA championships in 2006. While doing cross country my running career had gone horribly for several years and I was able to salvage it during my last season, but more than that at Colorado (I had started at University of Oregon then transfered) I had a really caring, amazing, supportive team both my coach and my teammates and it was such an honor to be chosen as a co-captain and to know that I helped make it possible in the way I was able when 10 years of training boils down to one 30 minute race. But in the Peace Corps, it really wasn’t a one moment thing it was day in and day out building relationships with people learning from them about their lives and teaching what I could.
Would you say that during that period was one you had the most challenging leadership tests?
With running, it was challenging in the sense that I wasn’t the best runner on my team. There were other guys that had and have gone on to have amazing careers with Olympic aspirations, so my role wasn’t leading in the sense of being out front but more to try to lead by example and to figure out how I could make my teammates better somehow. What my value added in that situation, was a unique one. In Peace Corps, the biggest challenge in terms of leadership in my own work was trying to create and maintain interest and to get people to believe The Soviet collapse had really profound effects on countries like Moldova and one of them has been a certain degree of resignation and mistrust so when we wanted to do community projects. It was a challenge to get people on board and to believe we were going to do what we said we would. Life in the countryside can be really hard if you’re trying to make ends meet and ultimately volunteers from time to time are depending on other people to volunteer their time as participants too!
So in that environment, what do you believe was the skill/attitude etc. that has helped contributed to your success?
Just continuing to show up every day and working myself and being happy that some people did come. The biggest project we took on was to build a park in my community. It was an 11 month process and about four months of actually building it. The attitude had to be, “we’re gonna get this done one way or another even if its just me and a handful of people.” Adults were generally really busy with summer work in the fields, but the kids were excited to help so lots of days it would be me, the three men we hired to do some of the more technical work, and a bunch of primary schoolers or a handful of my 12th grade students when they could take time from preparing for their exams. Eventually once people started to see we were going to get the project finished, more and more started to come help and by the end we would have as many as 50 people helping. About two thirds of them were kids from the community. They took tasks such as painting, pulling weeds, helping feel wheelbarrows, picking up rocks it was really touching.
Let’s talk about your work specifically with TARE/GLOW. How was that experience? How was it teaching leadership to these girls?
Honestly, of any one short-term thing I was involved with, TARE and GLOW were the most amazing Just a great concept bringing motivated, outstanding girls from all over the country together for a week partly to learn things about topics that are new or that they know less about life skills things, reproductive health, nutrition, etc but also to just get to know each other. Also, to meet other girls like themselves and see that other girls deal with the same things they do and to be inspired by each other and the amazing things so many of them were doing in their communities. It was just amazing to play a small part in it. Our group was asked to come lead some teamwork activities and games, either as an ice-breaker, or as an end-of-the-week session but we were lucky enough to get to spend some extra time and see some of the other activities and the best/worst was the good-byes at the end seeing the connections the girls had made during the week and feeling they had really been empowered by the experience and might think differently about certain things: careers, relationships, reproductive health, domestic violence. It’s always a weird feeling to promote these ideals, because it feels like you’re pushing “American/Western” values. The world is coming on board or at least enough people in enough places are realizing how key it is to educate girls and women, and to have women in leadership roles and having a say in decisions that affect women’s lives! We seem to be forgetting or have not to fully embraced those things in America either based on many political discussions.
So how would you describe women’s status/rights in Moldova?
It’s certainly changing. We talked a lot about gender roles in my life skills classes for being a relatively poor country (GDP per capita around $3000).The education rate is really high in terms of literacy. Many women go to college, but there is still the sentiment that getting married and having kids is the most important thing women should do with their lives. This is not the only way a woman should think. These are not her only options.
So what are your plans in this field? What do you want to do in the future?
I’m getting my masters in international relations right now and I’m focusing on Eastern Europe and Central Asia. I am thinking quite a bit about development and global health issues. I’ve also had a great class on leadership and I feel passionate about all these things, so ideally, I will be able to bring all those things together. Somehow I still feel like I have a lot to learn about the region and people’s lived experience (as opposed to reading historical accounts and policy memos). Maybe later on I will be confident enough to explore the policy realm more. In the meantime, I’m excited to hopefully work with motivated people trying to address important needs wherever that might end up being!