Digging Deep

Developing students, people, and communities: Engineers Without Borders celebrates 10 years at Fort Lewis College

Engineers Without Borders celebrates 10 years at FLC

 

Never again will Noah Garcia take for granted that he can turn on a faucet and enjoy fresh, clean water.

The 20-year-old senior Engineering major with a Spanish minor has traveled to remote villages in Ecuador and Nicaragua with Fort Lewis College's Engineers Without Borders, where he has helped design water systems while serving as a translator between students and villagers – a job that requires him to be "on" from dawn until well after dusk.

FLC EWB co-director Laurie Williams gathers with women from the village of Ban Namhom, Laos, in 2010.

 

It's not easy work. But these experiences, he says, have changed him forever.

"We work in communities where people are living with the absolute bare necessities, people who haven't lived with readily available water, and from the second we arrive, they pour their hearts and souls into building these systems," says Garcia.

Being able to actually change the lives of people living completely differently than anyone he has ever known has given him the direction he needs as he prepares for life after college, Garcia explains.

"I think of this program as my saving grace," he says. "It's given me a sense of purpose and motivated me to do well in engineering because I've seen firsthand the influence engineering can have on people."

10 years of making an impact

In 2004, Fort Lewis College formed one of the first chapters of Engineers Without Borders in the country. Started at the University of Colorado at Boulder just a few years earlier, the nonprofit organization creates "community-driven development programs," designing and implementing sustainable engineering projects in developing countries all around the world.

Don May, professor of Engineering and co-director of FLC Engineers Without Borders, brought his first group of seven engineering students to Huai Houk, Thailand, in 2005. Since then, dozens of Fort Lewis College students from a wide range of majors have teamed with faculty and community partners to build water and sanitation systems in remote villages throughout Thailand, Laos, Ecuador, Nicaragua, and Myanmar, improving the day-to-day lives of thousands of the world's poorest people.

Laurie Williams, professor of Engineering and co-director of FLC Engineers Without Borders since 2005, says that part of the program's success stems from the continuity provided by her and May. "The student turnover in the chapter from year to year varies, but Don and I are consistently involved, enabling us to establish a routine and program vision that is continuous and effective," she says.

It takes a village

water distribution system

Students Landon Wigton and Joanna Gordon connect the pipeline for a village water distribution system in Ban Pakhom, Laos, in 2011.

 

Also known today as the FLC student organization Village Aid Project, FLC's Engineers Without Borders chapter's work continues. In May 2015, groups traveled to Myanmar and Nicaragua to work on four water projects. Two teams led by Williams worked in the Pa'O tribal villages of Pone Phrone and Pone in north central Myanmar. Meanwhile, May took two teams to Rio Arriba and Las Palmas in remote northern Nicaragua.

"I think there are two things that make this program unique and powerful," says May. "First is that it is not a contrived homework assignment. Students are solving real world problems that critically affect people's lives. The people in these villages are trusting us to help them and relying on the work we do; there is a very high expectation associated with that.

"The second thing is that we give students an opportunity to engage with and understand the world from a different point of view, a different culture. Students could travel or study abroad or do ecotourism, but it isn't the same thing. This experience is truly unique. Most of the people we serve have never spoken to, or perhaps even seen, Westerners, let alone worked and lived with them to complete an important project."

Who participates?
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of student participants are engineering/physics majors

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from other natural sciences and mathematics

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are arts and humanities majors

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student travelers

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professional and community partner travelers

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FLC EWB alumni travelers

A true collaboration

Sustainability is the paramount principle of FLC Engineers Without Borders, which is why the group makes a five-year commitment to every village in which it works. Teams return to the villages for follow-up and monitoring of the projects, but May is quick to point out the collaborative nature of the program. He and his teams work closely with villagers who provide labor and other resources and who are trained to provide leadership during construction and into the future.

Communities elect a water committee to manage the system's operation once completed. The committees even require villagers to pay a small monthly fee. Once the FLC team leaves, the villagers take ownership of their new water or sanitation system.

IT'S NOT A HOMEWORK ASSIGNMENT; IT'S THE REAL WORLD. STUDENTS MUST FIGURE THINGS OUT AS THEY GO, AND IT'S NOT LIKE WE KNOW HOW IT WILL WORK.

There is also collaboration among the Engineers Without Borders team members – students of different majors work alongside volunteer professionals from a range of disciplines. That spectrum translates into all team members bringing their best to the table. In fact, May says, now that the program sends out teams four times each year, it simply wouldn't be possible for the Engineers Without Borders program to continue as energetically as it has without community partners.

"We have many financial supporters in the community, but we also have people who help with things like system design, travel, health education, and fundraising," he says. "Some are alumni, but many are engineers, nurses, or others who believe in the program's mission."

"There are no right answers to the problems we're trying to solve," May adds. "Everyone gets together and tries to figure out how to best solve them."

Changed for a Lifetime

Over the decade that FLC Engineers Without Borders has existed, the program has constructed more than two dozen water and sanitation systems in villages that have never known what it is like to have ready access to clean water. The program has also changed and inspired the hundreds of students who have gone along to help.

children of Ecuador

Student Matt Kleinert watches a traditional dance with children from the village of Llilla, Ecuador, in May 2013.

 

Alumnus Brian Campbell (Engineering, '06) was a part of EWB's very first trip in 2005. He has been on four trips since and now plays a support role, helping design systems and performing quality checks on students' designs. Campbell worked for Bechtolt Engineering from 2006 to 2010, earned an M.S. in civil engineering in 2012, and is currently a hydraulic engineer with the State of Colorado.

"A lot of my life pursuits have been influenced by my Engineers Without Borders experiences," Campbell says. "It motivates me; I really am driven by it. It's opened up my eyes to the need for humanitarian development, and it's become something I enjoy spending my time doing. I like working with the students and building something that ultimately helps these communities."
For many students, the words "passion," "empowerment," "connected," and "community" only scratch the surface of what EWB has meant to them.

"EWB makes my heart soar," says Ashley Garcia, a sophomore Sociology major, who has worked as a Spanish translator and built systems. The most poignant part, she says, has been the people involved. "You are always working side by side with the villagers, and it endears you to them. And it's also really cool to develop amazing friendships with students from all across campus. I have relationships I wouldn't have been able to build otherwise."

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You can help us bring clean water to thousands of people.


23 Projects completed in 5 countries
Constructed over 300,000 feet of water piplines
Brought clean water to over 6,400 people

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