While a fine institution like Penn is able to attract students from across the globe, certain regions still remain quite under-represented. The impossibilities of scouting and recruiting across long distances are one of many factors that contribute to an even more disproportionate ratio of Penn student-athletes who originate from beyond the East Coast.
One of these seldom represented places is Iowa. And while the men's basketball roster is largely dependent on student-athletes from Pennsylvania and New Jersey, a lone Iowan found his way here and has been fundamental to the very foundation of the program ever since.
Eric Heil picked up a basketball as a third grader and hasn't been far from one for the past thirteen years. Though he also played football, baseball, and ran track in high school, a growth spurt that shot his towering height up eight inches between his freshman and sophomore years brought about his decision to focus on basketball from his junior year onward. While college hoops hadn't been in Eric's plans, his impressive performance at a summer camp led to several recruiting calls and visits, ranging from Southern Alabama to Dartmouth, North Dakota to the Air Force Academy. Heil's natural aptitude for math and sciences, evident in his high school Academic All-State accolades, made his choice to pursue an engineering degree quite logical. And it was this career direction that initially took the Bettendorf, Iowa native across the nation to the quaint town of Bethlehem, Pa., home of the Lehigh Mountain Hawks, to accept a full academic scholarship and follow in his father's collegiate-ball footsteps, while still pursuing a good education.
In his freshman year at Lehigh, Eric was headed toward a degree in computer science engineering and simultaneously serving as the Hawk's newest star. He saw considerable time on the court, averaging 20 minutes a game, and did plenty while he was out there. Heil was named to the Patriot League's All-Rookie Team and was the league's leader in blocks. But one season was all Lehigh got from Eric. The team finished the season with a less than desirable 5-23 record and Heil decided to leave the program. The Mountain Hawks had faced the Quakers during the season, and Eric showed the Philadelphia folks what Iowa basketball was about. He played a great game, he had the grades, so he approached Coach Dunphy about transferring and the rest is history.
Heil started his School of Engineering and Applied Science (SEAS) pilgrimage as a bioengineering major. The season soon started and Eric quickly learned that Quaker basketball didn't allow him the time that bioengineering classes, labs, and exams required. "It just wasn't realistic," Heil said.
In his second semester here, he switched to systems engineering, which has proved to be the perfect fit. Eric's genuine "drive to help people" led him to chose a health care management focus (through Wharton), the only current graduating engineering student to do so. "It was then that I really started enjoying my classes," he said.
Amongst his favorites are his senior design and data structures classes, Professor Silverman's "Intro to E-Commerce Networking," and Wharton's "Health Care Systems" 101, 203, 204, and 212.
So what exactly does a systems engineer with a health care management focus do, you ask?
"[My major] is about decision-making skills. It provides you with tools to understand the way systems work and interact within the world, specifically between payers, providers and patients. I am learning how information can be transferred to help people. It also involves some economic analysis and problem-solving. It is a big-picture major."
For his senior design project, Heil and two group-mates developed a "discharge decisions support system." The idea came in response to a study conducted by Penn Nursing professor Dr. Kathy Bowles which found that 47 percent of those discharged from hospitals are not receiving proper follow-up care, which leads to relapses and re-admittance. This is a huge problem, especially with the elderly, because Medicare will not pay for treatment of the same illness within 30 days of discharge. Heil's discharge decisions support system helps health care providers understand the characteristics of patients who need home-care.
The Penn engineering faculty was extremely impressed with the system; Heil's group and program were selected as one of three finalists for the Norman Gross Award, given each year to the best systems senior design project. Eric had to miss this season's trip to Harvard and Dartmouth so he could give a one-hour presentation to the engineering faculty. Once again, his work was very well received, and although he did not ultimately win the award, the faculty was more than excited about his work and gave him great feedback, which continues to be of immense help since the decisions discharge system is an on-going project.
So, how does Heil manage to balance both basketball and engineering at all, and particularly, with such success?
"Time management is key. I am also very thankful for the willingness of classmates to help, in sharing notes for classes I missed while on the road, and for supportive professors. They've been great. And, it has only been possible because of Coach Dunphy. He has allowed me to take classes I need that conflict with practice and has just been so supportive in [the team's] academic lives.
"Penn has taught me so much about communication and relationships, about understanding different perspectives that decisions entail. Just meeting all sorts of people here has been so amazing. With my work-study job is in the SEAS alumni relations office, I have been able to meet such fascinating people; people who have come through here and have been an integral part of it. I have really just found my home here at Penn."
Unfortunately for his Penn basketball career, Eric suffered a serious injury last season. In November of his junior year, he tore all the cartilage in his left hip, and by spring, he was unable to run or move without severe pain. He underwent surgery to remove all the shredded cartilage in May, and went through rehab all summer. Then, at the conclusion of this season's first practice, Heil's leg swelled up and has continued to bother him.
"This has been the hardest year basketball-wise, but the joy of it is that basketball is a team game. I can still be a part of the team, a teammate. That is kind of the role I have taken. Coach came with me to the doctor, and the doctor told me to be done. But I wasn't ready. I told Coach I am going to be as much a part of the team as I can be."
And that is just what he has done. He comes to practice every day like everyone else, and he does as much as he physically can. Heil has worked as hard as anyone else in the Red and Blue and has been able to overcome overwhelming odds to record blocks, rebounds, points and assists in his limited on-court game time. Eric's determination, dedication, and amazing attitude are an inspiration to players, coaches, and fans alike.
"He's a great human being," Dunphy said. "He's a special guy, and I have been blessed to learn so much from him over the last three years."
Heil reciprocates such appreciation and genuine compliment-giving. "I have had great teammates, coaches, and professors. It has definitely been the relationships that have made the college experience for me."
Another noteworthy relationship of his is with Kelly Seaman, his girlfriend of two years and fiancée as of August, whom he met right here at Penn.
Eric also stressed the importance of his parents in all his success. "They have made such huge sacrifices to allow for my opportunities, particularly in my transfer from Lehigh to Penn. They are responsible for both the person I have become and for all the amazing experiences I have had. Their hard work is awe-inspiring.
"I've just been blessed with so many opportunities, they just keep presenting themselves, and for that, I am thankful."
As a graduating senior, Eric is currently interviewing for jobs in the professional world. He plans to work in the health care information and technology field to integrate today's amazing technology into the health care world, with decision support systems and electronic medical records.
Eric is also interested in the business side of things, in operations management and finance, so a MBA or graduate degree of that type is yet another goal of his, though he wants to obtain industry experience first. It is so apparent that it could go without saying; any company that is able to rein in the remarkable talents of Eric Heil will be lucky beyond words.
Written by Maren McCauley, C'06