UW Volunteers Key to Successful International Projects
December 20, 2011 — Hour after hour, mile after mile, Josh Fuller pushed himself as he made his way around the University Wyoming's outdoor running track. Supporters cheered him on as music blared from the public address speakers throughout the night and into the morning.
Finally, after 24 hours and 100 miles, the "Run, Josh, Run" ultra marathon was over. Fuller, a graduate civil engineering student from Sheridan, had succeeded in raising more than $6,000 for his passion -- to help build a system that could bring water to residents of Waondo, a community near the shores of Kenya's Lake Victoria. Located a half-mile from the world's second-largest fresh-water lake, Waondo has no permanent source of water, and villagers must haul the water they need. The UW chapter of Engineers Without Borders (EWB) designed a system to pump water from the lake to the community.
Fuller and other UW EWB volunteers had worked side by side with local residents in the hot Kenyan sun to bring the water project to fruition. They wanted desperately for the system that pumped water from the lake to the community to succeed.
Such passion is not uncommon for UW students who have volunteered to work at service projects overseas. At first, students often look at such humanitarian efforts as an adventure -- an opportunity to get away from Wyoming and the United States and experience life in another culture.
Sure, they know they'll get to learn some technical skills and apply to real-world challenges the things they have learned in classrooms and laboratories. That's part of the educational component of volunteering abroad, and students inevitably praise the learning aspect of participating in such projects. But once they get there and begin working in a new culture, something happens that changes them. UW Civil Engineering Professor Dick Schmidt, the EWB faculty adviser, describes it as a "life-changing experience."
"They learn something about themselves," Schmidt says "and many of them make a lifetime commitment to international service."
"You start out to help people, but you come back changed," says Fuller, who was a member of UW's first EWB project in 2007 and has participated in several international projects, including working in Zambia on a professional EWB project. "The most important aspect of volunteering overseas is that you grow personally. It will change your life."
He adds that many of the students with whom he has worked have moved overseas, obtained international internships, started working for international engineering firms or have joined international relief organizations such as the Peace Corps.
"I wouldn't even consider a career that was not in an international setting," says geology major Callie Berman of Boulder, Colo., an EWB student chapter veteran. She manages a UW project to design a drainage system to correct a flooding problem at a vocational-technical school that UW students designed and helped to build during a previous EWB project in Chocomuc, a village in Guatemala. Passionate about international travel, Berman recently made a site visit to the school and can't wait to get back to Guatemala to continue the project.
"I am fascinated by the complexities of other cultures," says Berman, a world traveler who has volunteered in India and Tanzania and also worked for a time in Australia. "It is important to spend some time understanding what the people really need, and to take their needs and cultural heritage into consideration when finding the best ways to create solutions."
Berman says she is often asked what can be gained from participating in international projects, and she purposely avoids talking about the standard clichés about the rewards of helping others. "Engineers Without Borders can construct things that can have an impact on people's lives," she says. "People realize they can do something meaningful with their lives. Why should they do anything less?"
The EWB project isn't the only one in which UW students volunteered to work in Kenya. Last summer, four students in a service learning project from the UW/Casper College Center worked alongside Kenyan natives at a primary school in Nakuru, where they constructed a kitchen and food program for elementary school children.
Health Care Brigades
The University of Wyoming's largest international volunteer service effort is a Health Care Immersion Program in Honduras, launched in 2007 by the School of Nursing. The project's director, Penelope Caldwell, says more than 110 UW students have made nine trips to Honduras. This program partners with an international non-governmental organization called Shoulder to Shoulder, specializing in health care and environmental hygiene.
Nicole Cova was among UW students who worked with patients during a two-week assignment in Agua Salada. Her assessment of the experience mirrors that of most of the other students.
"I came back with so much more confidence in my skills. It showed me I know what I'm doing and that I'm capable of providing the care people need," she says.
UW has committed to building a clinic to deliver health care to the people of Agua Salada and the surrounding area. Once established, this clinic will provide opportunities for health promotion and disease prevention.
"Cardio-vascular disease, debilitating mental illness, malnutrition, vaccine-preventable disease, and severe respiratory illness are prevalent, and require continuity of care," Caldwell says. "A permanent site will provide a unique clinical experience to identify and address these conditions."
Fact Box: Engineers Without Borders at UW
- UW is one of more than 250 student chapters of EWB-USA.
- Membership is open to all UW students, not just those in the College of Engineering and Applied Science.
- The chapter's mission is to "help disadvantaged communities improve their quality of life through implementation of environmentally and economically sustainable engineering projects, while developing internationally responsible engineering students."
- Participating students pay dues and fees totaling about $25 per year; other costs are covered by fundraising activities.
- Read journal entries by Josh Fuller and other members of the Kenya water project in the fall 2010 issue of UWyo magazine at http://www.uwyo.edu/uwyo/2011/docs/uwyo12.2.pdf.
Leah Bachert Stoner of Fairbanks, Alaska, a recent University of Wyoming graduate in secondary education and mathematics, demonstrates surveying equipment to local children in Waondo, Kenya. She was among students in the UW chapter of Engineers Without Borders who designed and installed a system to pump water from Lake Victoria to the community. (Josh Fuller)