Seoul American grad traveling on path to success

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Destinee Harrison/photo courtesy of Howard Athletics
Destinee Harrison/photo courtesy of Howard Athletics

Seoul American grad traveling on path to success

by: Lamar Carter | .
Howard University | .
published: September 10, 2014

Editor’s Note: Janice Harrison, a retired Army warrant officer, and her husband Michael, himself a retired master sergeant, shared this wonderful story that was written about their daughter Destinee, a volleyball star at Howard University. The Harrison’s currently reside in Seoul.

The word culture can be defined as: “the attitudes and behavior characteristic of a particular social group.”

When it comes to adjusting to and the shifting of cultures, Destinee Harrison is a natural.

The senior middle blocker has played an integral role in the transformation of Howard Women’s Volleyball and the perception that surrounds it. Harrison is one of six seniors who have helped turn a dormant Lady Bison program into a burgeoning Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC) power.

A culture change Harrison has seemingly navigated with ease, like so many others in her life.

Born into a career military family in Hinesville, Ga., in 1993, Harrison’s mailing addresses and travels in 21 years are more diverse than most peoples’ frequent flier locations and passport stamps are over a lifetime. Since leaving Georgia at age 1, she has lived in Hawaii; upstate New York; El Paso, Texas; the Netherlands; and Seoul, South Korea, where she currently resides when not on campus in Washington, D.C.

She describes her international experiences with a wisdom beyond her years:

“I’ve been inside the pyramids in Egypt, walked through the Roman Coliseum, spent days and nights on African safaris and visited Nelson Mandela’s Robben Island. I’ve climbed the Leaning Tower of Pisa & Mount Vesuvius in Italy, the Arc de Triomphe in France, Chichén Itzá in Mexico, and the Great Wall of China. I’ve visited Vatican City, gazed up at Michelangelo’s masterpiece in the Sistine Chapel, traveled through the tunnels in Vietnam and ancient ruins in Cambodia. I have shared experiences with residents in African townships and learned of their struggles to survive on a daily basis.

I have come to appreciate the small things in life, because I have seen those less fortunate.”

People tend to find their voice as they navigate their adult lives. Harrison came to Howard with a head start in that regard, bringing a culturally refined world view with her belongings as a college freshman.

She can credit her parents, Janice and Michael Harrison, for the world-expanding opportunities she has been given. The Harrisons are both United States Army veterans - Janice retired as a chief warrant officer four (CW4) and Michael as a master sergeant (E8).

They met in the southern region of South Korea in 1990 while on active duty. The people and culture of the region were very traditional and somewhat segregated in stark contrast to Seoul, a diverse, dynamic capital city. Because of this, there wasn’t much for the Harrisons to hang on to in the south. However, the couple had their bond of service, they had each other - and three years after meeting, they would have Destinee.

The effect the Harrisons’ globetrotting military lifestyle has had on Destinee is evident when you ask the couple about their daughter’s growth. “I think Destinee’s diverse background has significantly enriched her relationships with people and enhanced her ability to be a better person and teammate,” said Janice. Michael shared similar sentiments, adding, “Destinee is definitely a better person because of her background. We have traveled around the world and seen many people and cultures. She has taken the best of those experiences and flourished because of it.”

Every place Harrison has lived has coincided with an educational or personal milestone. When they moved to Hawaii, Janice and Michael had their second child, Raven, currently a sophomore at Alabama A&M University (Harrison also has an older brother, Michael II, a graduate of Full Sail University, who shares her love for family and travel). While at Fort Drum in Watertown, N.Y., Harrison began formal school in kindergarten. Her elementary school years would be completed around the Dutch at AFNORTH International School in The Netherlands while her middle school years were spent in the Lone Star State.

And her exceptional high school career developed at Seoul American High School (SAHS).

SAHS, like the city of Seoul, is very diverse. The school mainly serves the children of American military, but also has a sizeable number of Koreans, who attend as private students. Harrison speaks of her time there fondly, saying it was devoid of class issues and full of chances to intermingle with different types of people - an experience she credits for part of her success at Howard.

“Being at a school like SAHS helped me learn how to interact with different personalities,” Harrison said. “Howard is the same way and I’ve been able to thrive in this environment because of my time at SAHS.”

Athletically, Harrison was a versatile four-sport star at Seoul American. After arriving at the school as a late freshman in January 2008, she lettered four times in basketball, three in volleyball, and once each in soccer and track & field.

Harrison’s personal scholastic achievements as a volleyball player are impressive: two-time Korean-American Interscholastic Activities Conference (KAIAC) Most Valuable Player (2009-10); three-time KAIAC All-Conference and All-Tournament (2008-10); two-time All-Star selection (2009-10); and a host of other honors and accolades. She was also a part of a pair of KAIAC championships in 2009 and 2010.

However, her greatest high school accomplishment reads more like a movie script than a moment in history. It was the type of event that cements legacies – and transcends cultures.

Harrison’s high school coach, Seoul American physical education teacher Dennis Hilgar, began teaching volleyball in 1976. After spending two and a half years at Tehran American School in Iran, Hilgar took time off and found his way to SAHS in 1980. Heading into the 2010 season – Harrison’s senior year – Hilgar had yet to capture the school’s first Far East Volleyball Championship.

The Far East tournament is the biggest high school volleyball competition in the region. It began with the first Division I event in 1976 (SAHS competes in Division I), with Division II added in 1998. The road to the title is akin to March Madness stateside – a passion-fueled, winner-take-all competition. KAIAC teams compete through postseason divisional and conference play before the top 16 teams in the Pacific square off to crown a champion.

Kaytlan Soriano-Colon, an American teammate of Harrison’s at SAHS, holds the Far East experience in high regard to this day.

“Far East was like nothing I ever imagined. The event brings together teams from all around Asia with different cultures and one thing in common – love for the game of volleyball,” Soriano-Colon recalled.

The popularity of the sport, the diversity of competition and the end of her scholastic career – all of these factors increased the sense of urgency for Harrison to deliver a title for the school and for Hilgar, who announced prior to Far East that his 31st season on the sidelines would be his last.

Harrison seemed to become more focused after the announcement, but Hilgar attributed this more to her development over a career than any thoughts of providing him with a victorious send off.

“The drive Destinee showed her senior year was the culmination of a four-year process. As with most Department of Defense Dependents Schools (DoDDS) overseas, kids don’t stay around for a great length of time. The key to our success was a core group of kids that stayed together for over three years,” said Hilgar.

He added, “Each season, the team got closer and closer but fell short for one reason or another. Destinee’s junior year [in 2009], the team lost to their rivals in the Far East semifinals, leaving a hunger which fueled that final year. Destinee led the team in practices and games and finally took over the role of team leader she worked at for three years. The season was a joy to experience.”

That aforementioned rival - Faith Academy of the Philippines – eventually stood in the way of Destinee and SAHS finishing the season with either a crushing loss or a storybook ending.

The championship game between SAHS and Faith was a sight to behold. Soriano-Colon said the game was “probably the most intense game I ever had to play during high school.” She was a freshman that season.

In their small home gym, with capacity maxed out at standing room only, Harrison and Seoul American took a 2-0 lead over Faith after winning the first two sets, 25-20 and 25-15. Naturally, achieving a feat as gratifying as a Far East championship would not happen without a fight; Faith rebounded to take the next two sets, 27-25 and 25-12.

Such a drastic swing in momentum has derailed many a volleyball team on every level of the sport, but something clicked for SAHS in the final set. Coach Hilgar needed to win one more set in his illustrious career, and the senior class – led by Harrison – delivered it in emphatic fashion.

15-4. Mission accomplished. The Seoul American Falcons were finally crowned champions of the Far East.

Harrison had helped create a new normal. Winning the Far East was suddenly an attainable task and not just a dream. The Falcons brought home the title for Seoul American and for Coach Hilgar, and Harrison would continue her career back in the United States with an immense sense of pride.

The high of claiming a championship as a high school senior was quickly grounded by the Lady Bison’s struggles during Harrison’s freshman campaign in 2011.

The team finished with a 6-24 (5-7 MEAC) record; was swept 3-0 in the quarterfinals of the MEAC Tournament; and learned that its head coach, the one who recruited Harrison, would not be returning.

Current head coach Shaun Kupferberg, now entering his third season with the Lady Bison, was brought in before training camp in 2012 with the task of turning the program around. Harrison saw a drastic, positive response from the team to Kupferberg’s coaching style. “Coach K knows how to push us as female student-athletes but still allows himself to open up to us and vice versa,” Harrison said of Kupferberg.

However, the team would not see immediate results from the change in her sophomore year. The team posted a 1-23 overall mark (1-11 MEAC) in 2012 and didn’t win its lone contest until the penultimate home game of the season.

Things weren’t going the way Harrison had planned halfway through her time as a college student-athlete. Looking back, though, she credits a trip home to South Korea the summer before sophomore year for providing a source of perspective to balance her in trying times.

During the summer of 2012, Harrison returned to the U.S. Army Garrison Yongsan base in Seoul and held a multi-day skills camp for young girls in the area looking to learn more about volleyball. Harrison knew how hard it was to earn her Division I scholarship, so she wanted to give back to the community and help the girls get a little bit better.

The camp was lightly attended, with no more than 20 girls participating, but the response was overwhelming and the improvement of the girls noticeable. Everyone thanked Harrison for putting on the clinics and pleaded for more sessions before she returned to school, with many of the girls quickly catching on to the techniques she taught them.

Overall, running the camp put the rough start of her collegiate career in perspective as a minor setback – another culture she could adjust to and affect change in.

All of Harrison’s experiences – adapting to new and diverse surroundings, working for a greater good and battling through adversity – proved valuable in 2013. The most diverse and talented set of teammates Harrison played with at Howard helped the Lady Bison produce the team’s first 20-win season in nearly two decades and their first appearance in the MEAC Tournament semifinals since 2004.

Kupferberg recognizes the value of Harrison’s experiences and her contributions to Howard’s renaissance.

“Destinee’s life travels have given her the ability to handle situations on and off the court with a maturity that is not seen in many college students,” Kupferberg said.

“She has been a stabilizing student-athlete that has kept the team on course over the last few years.”

Harrison, whose stats have steadily trended upward each season, had her best campaign as a junior. She led the Lady Bison with a .330 hitting percentage – second in the MEAC – and was a top-five team performer in several categories, including kills, points and blocks. At one point, she even ranked in the top 25 nationally in hitting percentage.

Harrison deflects attention away from her individual numbers, choosing instead to focus on the reemergence of the program.

“I’m excited about our team and what it can be,” said Harrison. “Our seniors are a very special group. We know what it means to struggle and succeed here, so as a team, we want to leave our legacy. The difference in the program from when I arrived to now is night and day.”

A broadcast journalism major, Harrison aspires to work as an on-air personality for Black Entertainment Television (BET) or Disney in the future. Her engaging personality, the variety of her worldly experiences and her character as a hard-working student-athlete are a package that any organization would be hard pressed to bypass.

Before the pursuit of those goals can begin, the senior from Seoul, South Korea will look to truly change the culture of the Howard volleyball program – by helping to break the Lady Bison’s 20-year MEAC championship drought with her graduating class.

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