By Timothy Deenihan
Adyel Duran’s family arrived from the Philippines in the ’80s, settling in Rockland County, N.Y., and taking work in a medical lab in Yonkers. With a broad family tradition in medical and health-related fields, and with no real calling elsewhere, Duran started at Sacred Heart as an athletic training major.
Before spring break that freshman year, he had never been outside the U.S., apart from a vacation in Mexico or a visit with family back in the Philippines. Then he went to Guatemala.
The trip was part of SHU’s service-learning spring break alternatives, and it was, in Duran’s own words, “eye opening, to say the least.” He returned to campus with a mission and, in the fall of his sophomore year, Duran declared himself Sacred Heart University’s first global studies major.
He has returned to Guatemala twice since that first trip, and he has gone to Bangladesh with SHU’s Office of Volunteer Programs & Service Learning. In June, just a couple weeks after graduating, Duran headed to Washington, D.C., then on to Kosovo with the Peace Corps to teach English in high schools there and work in community development. It was his first trip to Europe.
You might say he’s expanded his horizons since first arriving at Sacred Heart.
Duran might say he’s become the black sheep of his family, trading in a health and sciences degree for the humanities. But listen to him talk about Guatemala, and you know the apple has not fallen so far from the family tree.
“As soon as we arrived, I could see there was a real public health issue,” he says. “The traditional means of cooking in Guatemala is an open fire in a one-room house. You can’t walk into a place without your eyes stinging from the smoke. Everyone there suffers from respiratory issues.” Indeed, Duran is quick to note that the World Health Organization has identified the leading cause of death in Guatemala for children under age 5 as smoke inhalation.
Rather than looking to treat the symptoms, however, this budding diplomat and activist went after the cause itself. He spearheaded a project aimed at installing new stoves in the homes that are vastly more efficient. They use 70 percent less wood and direct the smoke out of the house. This means they not only greatly reduce the amount of toxic pollutants locals inhale through simple cooking and heating, but also require significantly less time and effort to scavenge the fuel to operate them. Since the program’s inception, about 30 stoves have been installed, either by Duran himself or by other students traveling to the region as part of the project.
He also has rolled up his sleeves to make a difference closer to home. This past year, Duran lived with the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, working on a small housing project with volunteers from all over the country. These Native Americans are Lakota Sioux, like those at Standing Rock who have made international news in their attempts to protect their land from the Dakota Access Pipe Line and with whom they share a very similar history. The daily struggles this community faces—even apart from the ongoing protest—is almost unimaginable. “I just couldn’t wrap my head around it,” Duran says. At least, not until he actually met them, sat with them, listened to their stories and witnessed the challenges they face daily.
That desire to learn first-hand, that curiosity to understand others’ lives, their history and how it informs their present, is the seed of Duran’s wanderlust. “There are things you really can’t learn in a classroom,” he says. “Whatever the subject, nothing is better than learning from the people who experienced it.”
Such immersion—sleeping on the same floor, walking the same path as the people he hopes to serve—breeds a unique empathy and highlights the complexities of problems often missed when simply studying the bullet points of a dossier. It also underscores what he cherishes most about this new major he has pioneered at the University. “Global studies is very interdisciplinary. You quickly learn that there is no one technocrat, no one expert, with a silver bullet for all the problems. So, you prepare yourself to learn in a multitude of ways.”
That flexibility should serve him well in the months and years to come. Of course, the future is always uncertain, and there is his obligation to the Peace Corps to complete first, but Duran has set his sights on a lifetime of service, hoping ultimately to work in international development with an organization like USAID or the U.N.
Whatever may come, however, this much is for sure: Sacred Heart’s first global studies major has dedicated himself to turning talk into action, and already there are people around the globe whose lives are better for it.