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
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."