Chuck Herman ’14 failed his first Critical Inquiry seminar (ID1) paper at Pomona.
Graduating from a low-performing high school in Bethel, Alaska, a small town 400 miles west of Anchorage accessible only by plane, Herman had some truly exceptional teachers over the years, but his writing was nowhere near where it should’ve been.
Working harder than he ever had before, Herman was whipped into shape by Professor of History and Classics Kenneth Wolf. “I can now say I am a much better writer,” says Herman. “Effective writing has served me well in everything I’ve done since Pomona.”
He had already done much at Pomona: he participated in a summer undergraduate research program (SURP) with Professor of Politics David Menefee-Libey, he served on Judiciary Council, was a sponsor for Harwood 2 West and was part of Advocates for Survivors of Sexual Assault. In May of 2014, just before he was to graduate with a degree in public policy analysis, Herman paced the courtyard of his Clark V residence hall, debating whether to take a prestigious fellowship with the state of California or move home to work at his old high school as a college and career guidance counselor.
He decided to return home to Bethel. Armed with his liberal arts education from Pomona, fueled by his thesis advisor, Sociology Professor Colin Beck, and his academic advisor, Professor Hung Cam Thai, Herman quickly became attuned to local politics and in no time, he had plunged himself as a candidate in the race for city council. On election day, he wound up garnering the most votes of any candidate, making him, at the age of 22, the youngest to serve on his hometown’s council.
Herman quickly learned that no governing body is too small or should be overlooked. In a city of 6,000 inhabitants, he deliberated with fellow council members on measures ranging from creating a borough to manage gold mining to making liquor sales legal in the city.
But the two ordinances that Herman is most proud of directly affect Bethel’s public servants. He sponsored a measure that provides equal rights protections for race, gender, age, religion and other classes to include sexual orientation and gender identity. The second point of pride involved getting police officers close to a 25 percent pay increase in order to have pay in-line with other public safety officers in rural areas around Alaska.
Herman’s roots in rural Alaska run deep. His idealistic parents, who had met in the Jesuit Volunteer Corps., brought him there when he was only one year old, and he maintains an upbeat vision of the town that serves as a regional hub in lightly-populated southwestern Alaska. “Just about everyone in Bethel is committed to helping others,” he says.
Since the age of six, Herman attended Ayaprun Elitnaurvik, a school dedicated to immersion in Yup’ik, the native Alaskan language of the region. His schooling was entirely in Yup’ik until the 3rd grade—so he went by Arrsauyaq, his Yup’ik first name. “That is the first name I went by for a formative part of my life,” says Herman. Last year, he had the name he had long used legally added as his middle name.
“Two years ago, the [Ayaprun Elitnaurvik] school burned down and the community’s response cemented my belief that caring people can make a difference. The school was quickly up and running in an old grocery store and soldiered on—again, because people were willing to give their time to help. I honestly don’t know how someone could grow up in Bethel and not believe in public service.”
For Herman, being on the council only cemented his belief in the importance of service. Still in his twenties, he also felt he needed to gain broader experience beyond home. In 2016, less than two years into his term on the Bethel City Council, he announced he was stepping down to attend Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government as a master’s student in public policy and public service fellow. He was careful to complete his duties, timing his last day to June 15, the day the city budget was due.
With Herman’s high school career counselor position coming to an end as a two-year fellowship with the College Advising Corps, he decided it was a good time to pursue further education. “I didn’t feel like I had the tools and skills necessary to make the changes I wanted,” he says.
Trading rural Alaska for the Ivy League, Herman started working with Professor Marshall Ganz, a longtime organizer who orchestrated President Barack Obama’s community organizing strategy and worked side-by-side with César Chávez. In addition, Herman is a co-coordinator for the Public Policy and Leadership Conference, an event that brings underrepresented students to Harvard for a weekend to explore the field of public policy. “I attended the conference as a sophomore during my time at Pomona, and this past year I met two students from Pomona who attended,” adds Herman.
Herman admits he knew people at the Kennedy School were going to be smart, but didn’t realize how well he would fit in at the elite institution. “It’s a pretty remarkable thing to have friends from Texas, Indonesia, New Mexico and Singapore who all want to solve different problems, but at the root of it, believe in the same things you do,” he says. “Also, I’ve learned quite a bit of math, which I may have avoided like the plague at Pomona (pro-tip to current students: take math!).”
Adding to his public policy acumen, Herman traveled to Montana this past summer to work in the Office of Governor Steve Bullock as the Michael S. Dukakis Fellow, a fellowship funded through the Kennedy School that places students in state houses around the country. Working on forest policy and economic development in the outdoor recreation sector during the day, Herman did lots of exploring and hiking in his free time too. An outdoors enthusiast, Herman led Orientation Adventure trips to Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks during his time at Pomona.
What’s next for Herman after graduate school? Most likely something in state or city government he says, and then he has plans to head back home. He wants to serve the people of Alaska who, as he puts it, “can disagree with you about everything and still smile at the grocery store and jump-start your car.”