When he graduated from Thomas Aquinas College, Matthew Kuemmerlein (’07) never anticipated that he would soon spend two years in the jungles of the Far East. Eastern Europe seemed more likely. He had studied in Prague for a year before coming to the College, and for one year after his graduation he taught English there. Upon returning home, he applied to several graduate programs in Eastern European studies.
Around that time, however, another idea captured his imagination — the Peace Corps. A tour of duty, he thought, would broaden his experiences, allow him to learn another foreign language, and satisfy his residual wanderlust. “It seemed like a program where I could use my skills as a teacher in a foreign country, while giving me latitude to work on a variety of other projects as well,” he says. So he deferred entry to graduate school and undertook the Corps’ lengthy application process. One year later, he received his admittance, as well as the assignment that would shift not just the geography, but the very nature, of his long-term plans.
That this assignment brought him to the Philippines was less a matter of preference than of providence. “When I was applying for the Peace Corps, I heard that the more open you are to possible assignments, the more likely you are to get to serve, so I told them I would go wherever they sent me,” Mr. Kuemmerlein recalls. Although expressing a preference for Eastern Europe, he also indicated an interest in Asia. “It seemed exotic and interesting,” he reflects, “and I didn’t know when I would ever again have an opportunity to see such a distant part of the world.”
When Mr. Kuemmerlein arrived in Manila, his knowledge of the Philippines was mostly of the textbook variety. For three months he underwent training in a classroom setting. He took classes on Filipino culture while learning the Bisaya dialect. It was only in the subsequent three months, when he was paired with a host family in the seaport city of Dumaguete for further training, that he developed a firsthand awareness of the culture, the vibrancy of the country’s Catholic faith, and the depths of its political and economic troubles.
His host family consisted of a separated older woman who ran a boarding house to make ends meet and her domestic helper, “a nice girl from the rural Southern region who had a very rough background.” Kind, but scarred and hardened, she was the daughter of members of the New People’s Army, the armed wing of the Filipino Communist Party. Coming to know her gave the harsh realities of life in an unstable, developing country a human face. “I always knew in a vague way that people struggled with poverty and corruption in other parts of the world, and I had a desire to help them,” he says. “But I hadn’t experienced it.”
When his training came to an end, and it was time for Mr. Kuemmerlein to choose a location for the next 18 months of his service, he knew where he wanted to go. “Many volunteers wanted to stay where they already were, in familiar places, but I was more interested in a rural site, maybe a place that wanted a volunteer, but had never been able to get one,” he says. He got just that. His assignment was in the small fishing and agricultural municipality of Hinundayan (pop. 12,000) in the Leyte province of the central Philippines. It was, as he describes, a place “thick with jungle and teeming with wildlife,” where “poverty overshadows everything.” Unemployment neared 80 percent, and the average household income amounted to about $80 a year.
Prior to Mr. Kuemmerlein’s arrival, Hinundayan had not had its own Peace Corps volunteer for more than 30 years. The next year and a half would be “a humbling experience,” he says, “to try and help young people who have never had things that I always took for granted,” such as a pair of shoes, three meals a day, consistent electric service — or a realistic hope of going to college.
He got off to a rough start. During the days before his departure from Dumaguete, Mr. Kuemmerlein came down with a case of Dengue Fever. Nicknamed “break bone fever” because of the excruciating sensation it imposes on one’s skeleton, the syndrome also causes severe pain behind the eyes, and left Mr. Kuemmerlein lying in a hospital for a week, being fed intravenously, with his Peace Corps supervisor keeping vigil at his bedside.
Once his health recovered, he encountered a different sort of challenge: educating amid rampant poverty. His job was to teach English at a public high school of about 700 students in sections of about 40 each. The top, or “model,” sections consisted of high-achieving students from economically secure families who were “easy to teach, motivated, and hard working.” The others, although bright and good-humored, had much more difficult home lives. They missed large chunks of the school year to work the farms during harvest season or to tend to ailing relatives, and as such struggled to stay on top of their studies.
For most of Mr. Kuemmerlein’s students, a college education was impossibly out of reach. There were too few openings in the local universities, and the cost was prohibitive. Considering the limited employment opportunities, schooling often seemed not worth the effort. “If the students were not academically inclined, they saw little reason to complete high school,” Mr. Kuemmerlein notes.
The educational experience of his students could not have been more different from his own as the homeschooled son of a lawyer in Kansas City. For Mr. Kuemmerlein, there was never any doubt that he would go to college; the only question was where.
The answer to that question came by way of his older sister, Marian (’04), who corresponded with him while she was herself a student at Thomas Aquinas College. “Marian would write to me, inspired by the issues she was trying to come to grips with in the classroom, the great questions, the exchanges with other students,” Mr. Kuemmerlein remembers. “Her experience with the rigors of the program, and the questions she engaged in, formed my impression that Thomas Aquinas College was a school that posed a challenge, that would provide a formative experience. So I decided to apply.”
Like his sister, Mr. Kuemmerlein found the experience to be transformative. “I developed the capacity for serious thought and thoughtful debate, plus an understanding of the Catholic intellectual tradition and great books that I did not have before,” he says. “Later, when I would collaborate with other volunteers in the Peace Corps, people who didn’t always share my outlook or faith, I became all the more grateful for the educational formation that I had and the ways it prepared me.”
Yet knowing the great riches of his own learning made him all the more sorrowful about the lack of educational opportunities for his students. “What I wanted to do was find a way to send them all to college,” he says. “These were young people trying to do well in a bewildering educational environment, living on two meals a day. It gave me a renewed appreciation of what I have — of what we have — in the U.S.”
The Missionary as Educator
Thus it became Mr. Kuemmerlein’s goal to give his students “a touch of the liberal arts as I experienced them at the College,” he says. “I did my best to make the classes events in which students could participate, reflect on their lives, create, engage each other in small groups, and even perform a little bit.” Among the most gratifying moments, he says, was when he received a thank-you note from a student who said that he had taught her not only English, but also “how to think.”
Outside the classroom he sought other ways to enrich his students’ educational experience. He developed an after-school reading program to boost reading comprehension, prepare students for standardized examinations, and “enkindle in them a love for reading.” He helped to establish an intramural soccer program, so students could exercise their bodies as well as their minds. He also conducted a series of instructional seminars for the members of the school’s faculty.
Trying his hand at fund-raising, Mr. Kuemmerlein raised money for various school needs, including an LCD projector and books for the library. Thanks to his work, that library now has hundreds of more titles, as well as a large, beautiful map of the world that he and some students fabricated — one of only two maps in the school’s possession.
“These were young people trying to do well in a bewildering educational environment, living on two meals a day. It gave me a renewed appreciation of what I have, of what we have, in the U.S.”
The way in which Mr. Kuemmerlein most wants to help the students of Hinundayan, however, is by enabling them to go to college. For one student, he has already made a tangible effort, helping her to apply for a scholarship. For others, he has promised to explore new options for providing assistance.
With that in mind, Mr. Kuemmerlein, who returned stateside in November, is currently applying to business schools. “After two years, I felt like if I really wanted to help the Filipino people, I should try something else, something that addresses their poverty in a more substantive way,” he says. “They need jobs, but how do you bring business to a place where there is such uncertainty? I hope to explore these and other questions in business school.”
When he arrived in the Philippines, he was known as “Matthew,” which quickly evolved into “Mateo,” so as to better suit the native tongue. Now he signs his e-mails “Tiyoy,” the nickname his community affectionately bestowed upon him. The Filipino culture, which he once knew only from a textbook, he now embraces as though it were his own. “When St. Pedro Calungsod, the second Filipino saint, was canonized, I celebrated, and I often found myself praying for his intercession.”
On the eve of Mr. Kuemmerlein’s departure, the community sponsored a party in his honor, attended by the mayor, the parish priest, his students, their families, and many others he befriended over the course of his stay. It was a sad farewell, but not a final one. Tiyoy seems determined to return. “I feel a sense of obligation to continue to help them out more than I have,” he says, “in any way I can.
Posted: February 14, 2013