Heller '05 honored for community service

by Richard Lazarus | 7/21/03 5:00am

Becca Heller '05 is not one to talk up her own accomplishments. Although in her time so far at Dartmouth, Heller has started more community initiatives than many college graduates will contribute to in their entire lives, talking with her one gets the impression that all her work was so simple, or so obvious, that the only remarkable thing is that it was never done before.

Take, for example, Heller's development of a mentoring program in which Dartmouth students tutor local elementary school children in Sharon, N.H. Heller's description of her efforts: "I blitzed out to my friends and said 'who wants to mentor a kid?' and pretty much everyone did." Now Heller and "16 of my closest friends" go play with kids at the school once a week.

Heller last week received The Dartmouth's Milton Sims Kramer Book Award. Every academic year, the Board of Proprietors of The Dartmouth, Inc. award the prize to a member of the lower three classes who has most contributed to the College community while maintaining a high scholastic standing.

Why is this kind of work so important to Heller? "I get asked that a lot," Heller said. "I give all sorts of answers," among them a sense of obligation to give back because of her privileged position at Dartmouth and with a supportive family. "But that's all sort of bullshit," she continued. "I do it just because I feel it's a good thing to do."

Part of why Heller has dedicated herself to causes outside the College are her reasons for coming here.

"I didn't really want to go to college," she said. In high school, Heller had won high honors in a debate program, arguing passionately for equality in educational policy -- all while her school subsidized her place tickets. "At some point I just thought, 'this is ridiculous.'"

So Heller took a year off, travelling to London -- because they spoke English, Heller insisted, with typical deprecation of her own motives -- to work with refugees. Heller helped Albanian women and children gain basic skills. It was there that she first realized the importance of what she called the "middle link" that got people to a self-supportive life.

After London, Heller worked for Americorps. "They basically paid me to do a job for which I was not at all qualified," Heller said. She found herself responsible for administering a $300,000 equal education grant to a Bay-area school.

It was then that Heller -- almost accidentally by her description -- got in to Dartmouth. "It's an unfortunate fact of life that for people to take you seriously you need to have some letters after your name, letters like 'B.A.,'" she explained. At that time, "I was pretty mad at the institution even though I didn't know what the institution was," she confessed. "So I started doing service right away."

The mentoring program was one of Heller's first efforts. More recently, she successfully lobbied for Hanover to allow the segment of land known as the Gile Tract to be built up with 60 affordable housing units, a pressing need in the expensive Upper Valley housing market.

She also arranged technology training for teachers in an elementary school in the Mascoma school district and obtained used computers for the school from a Vermont non-profit.

Heller does not believe that service is made a high-enough priority by Dartmouth and its students. "I'm constantly changing my mind about that," she said. "I feel like the activist wing at Dartmouth is not as loud, as big, or as active as on other campuses."

Heller described as "telling" that the two biggest incidents of student advocacy while she has been on campus were the swim team cut and the proposed changes to the alcohol policy.

Part of the missing urgency comes from Dartmouth's insulation from the events of the rest of the world -- Heller heard about Sept. 11 on her DOC trip. Part is just because rural poverty is, in many ways, quieter than urban poverty. "There's no one sleeping in the doorway of Murphy's," as Heller put it.

"There are many ways Dartmouth could be giving back to the community through learning," Heller said.

She specified service-learning programs as one. Service learning is sometimes called "community-based learning" to keep it from sounding too vocational for a liberal arts school. It would involve something like working in a local non-profit instead of doing a final paper.

A recent combination of a speeding ticket and a John Grisham novel ("two low points in my cultural life," as she put it) made Heller realize that a law degree would be useful for the kind of work she will want to do, but Heller said she will take some time before she applies, maybe teaching elementary schools in a major city.

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