spea magazine

Cream of the Crop

Student Stories: John Healey

John Healey graduated Boston College with a chemistry degree and enough self-awareness to know that he did not want to be a chemist. “I really didn’t want to be in a laboratory working with chemicals,” he says. “I wanted to use my background toward a more positive end.”

After three years with the Peace Corps teaching science in Samoa, Healey went back to school to find a different career path. Today, as he nears graduation with joint MPA and MSES degrees from the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University, this 30-year-old with eyes as blue as the South Pacific Ocean approaches his future with clarity.

The future, for Healey, is water.

Once his Peace Corps tour of duty was behind him, Healey spent eight months traveling through Asia, particularly in Thailand, where drinking water is contaminated with arsenic from sandy aquifers and arsenic ore waste piles. Long-term exposure to arsenic can lead to skin lesions and cancer, as well as cardiovascular and neurological disease. “It seemed like such an injustice, especially when this is a problem that’s relatively cheap and easy to remediate,” says Healey. “Clean water should be a fundamental human right.”

As Healey explored his educational options across the country, he noticed that SPEA was especially welcoming to Peace Corps volunteers, offering credit hours for service. The specialized joint degree Healey crafted for himself—combining environ-mental policy with environmental risk assessment, toxicology, and computer-based modeling—gave him the perspective and tools he needed to focus his aspirations. “I liked SPEA’s interdisciplinary approach to managing problems. It’s not just the engineering, but also the economics, the cost benefit analysis, the understanding that you have to work with the resources the country has available.”

That interdisciplinary approach, Healey notes, makes the critical difference between a quick fix and enduring improvement. “In Samoa I noticed how organizations would come in with good intentions and put a lot of money into resources without insuring that the Samoans were even remotely interested in those resources. Sometimes people won’t adopt a new method because it’s too foreign to them. Maybe they don’t have the education or awareness to understand that filters need to be changed. In India, UNESCO put in all these pumping stations but there’s no control over how much people are drawing from the wells and no control over the filters that are installed in the wells. So here you’ve got all these new pumps but no one knows how to sustain them.”

At this writing John Healey is several months from graduation. Clearly, he has mined graduate school for all it is worth, taking an internship with the EPA, serving as president of SPEA’s graduate student association and the university-wide graduate and professional student organization. Last summer he was funded by the U.S. State Department to attend a workshop in Moscow and at Lake Baikal in Siberia where the subject was management of the lake as a drinking water resource.

Those who know Healey are struck by his humility—indeed, he was almost embarrassed to be the subject of a magazine profile, insisting that he’s no different from any other SPEA student. But Jennifer Forney, director of graduate student services, knows otherwise. “John has such empathy for his fellow man,” she says. “He always puts others before himself and that’s what draws people to him. He is definitely going to live the mission of this school.”

Asked to imagine his dream job, Healey says he wants to be back in Southeast Asia working on water quality. “I know I could make better money in a private corporation, but I’m not sure I’d have much of an impact on the larger population,” he says with characteristic earnestness. “Working in less developed countries challenges me in the ways I need to be challenged, and encourages me to do a job that’s going to be of real benefit.”