Between February 10-12, 2013 I had the opportunity to attend the World Federation of Engineering Organizations, Young Engineers/Future Leaders (WFEO YE/FL) conference in Kuwait City, Kuwait. Although I represented the Engineers Without Borders-USA (EWB-USA) as a member of their Board of Directors, I also came to the conference as a curious engineering undergraduate student from Rice University in Houston, Texas, USA. Much of my exposure to engineering education
so far had been in a formal classroom setting or on-the-ground running projects with EWB-USA in Central America, and I knew that the conference represented a unique opportunity for me to augment my engineering education by exposing me to engineers from different cultures and with different ideas and accomplishments. I was excited beyond belief to spend a few days in Kuwait City in the days leading up to my journey, and the conference and the people who I had a chance to meet completely surpassed my expectations and left me inspired about the future of engineering.
Coming to the conference, I had two primary objectives to accomplish:
- Deliver a presentation titled “Grassroots international relations and economic development through the Engineers Without Borders-USA”
- Interact with as many of the conference delegates to set up collaboration on future projects and build a strong network of engineers around the world
My speech was to be delivered on the 3rd day of the conference, and I had a very short period of time in which to put together an effective speech that related to the themes of the conference. However, I drew upon my personal experiences as a project leader on a health clinic construction project in Nicaragua to explain my hypothesis that EWB-USA, by constructing infrastructure targeted at addressing the the most basic human needs, provides the foundation upon which communities in the developing world can make the jump from “developing” to “globalizing” communities. By eliminating the struggle for basic resources, EWB-USA projects help co
mmunities reach the economic threshold where entrepreneurship and innovation can flourish, a phenomenon I had seen through my own personal experience. One of the community members with whom I had worked in Nicaragua had been able to open a very profitable local grocery store after we had constructed the clinic for his community, because he was spending less time taking care of his sick children and was able to achieve a larger crop yield and greater profit. Another key hypothesis I explored during my speech was the idea that non-profit organizations like EWB-USA were pioneering a new mode of thinking called “Grassroots International Relations”, and that much of social change although initially driven by national governments for most of human history were now being driven on a more individualized basis at the community and NGO level. I ended my speech by challenging the delegates from the other nations at the conference to apply the principles I had espoused in my speech in the organizations that they run, and in extending EWB-USA’s support for Kuwait’s start-up for their own national EWB organization.
Throughout the conference, I had the privilege of meeting with incredible engineering leaders from around the world to share ideas and knowledge about the future of engineering, and how young engineers like myself can be empowered to face this future. The most influential part of the conference was that by listening to the delegates’ speeches, through off-the-cuff conversations, and by partaking in long late-night walks with conference delegates around Kuwait City, I learned about the work of other similar organizations around the world that promote engineering and about how I could position myself to think about the future of engineering. Interacting with delegates from EWB-Kuwait and EWB-UK gave me a feel for the broad range of methodo
logies surrounding EWB thinking in different countries around the world. Chatting with European delegates exposed me to the vast differences in pedagogy at the university level for engineering between continents. Listening to various women leaders speak about engineering in their countries exposed me to various initiatives being undertaken around the world to empower women in engineering. Most of all, exchanging jokes and laughs with the young engineers attending the conference established strong bonds between myself and the other conference-goers. Although several miles and cultural barriers may differentiate us, our shared interest and passion for engineering binds us together into one global community.
Although I had an insightful experience with the people who I had met during my 3 days at the conference, I felt empowered to come back to the United States to spread the knowledge that I had learned. The experience gave me fresh perspective on exactly why I was working hard in the classroom to gain an engineering education, and I knew that the international exposure I had enjoyed would only strengthen my development as a budding international engineering leader. While humbled by the opportunity, I also sincerely hope that other engineering students like me are given opportunities to attend WFEO and YE/FL conferences in the future so that they too can enjoy the opportunity to network with like-minded and inspirational individuals and leaders that I had enjoyed. Engineering education now more than ever requires a significant international component, and by attending conferences like that in Kuwait City, other engineering students can become emboldened and inspired about their potential.
My attendance at the WFEO YE/FL conference is a huge step in my engineering education and leadership development, and I look forward to partaking in more conferences in the future!
ENGITEERING: [en-jih-teer-ing]/noun: The modern engineer engaged in the act of restoring world balance.
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For our first “official” post, I thought it would be apropos to write about volunteering. During our recent convention in Kuwait, all of the Kuwaiti Young Engineers took the stage for a brief moment to tell us why they volunteer. The answers were varying. Now I’ll tell you my story. I hope this article makes you think about why YOU volunteer. Leave me a comment at the end of this post to tell me what makes you want to give back to your community.
WEC 2009, Kuwait
Volunteering is an investment in your community. The time you spend volunteering is essentially a down-payment for the future of the engineering industry and the world. It’s you casting your vote for the kind of world you want to live in and a model for how we should treat others. It’s for this reason that I coined the phrase and title of this post, “Engiteering,” or engineer + volunteer = the modern engineer giving back.
Marian Wright Eldelman said, “Service is the rent we pay for being. It is the very purpose of life, and not something you do in your spare time.” From time to time, I get mired in my seeming inability to affect change. During these moments, I remember that a wise man once said, “Better to do something imperfectly than to do nothing flawlessly.” I believe that each and every one of us is called to give back. Regardless of your station in life, YOU have something to contribute to your community. You can be the small drop in the pond that starts the ripple effect and be the change you want to see in the world.
When you ask a kid, “what do you want to be when you grow up,” an “engineer” is not among the popular list that includes policeman, teacher, or veterinarian. Engineering may be too ambiguous for most young children, but from the time I was three years I knew that it would be my life calling. In high school, I did a research project on bridges which ultimately led me to choose civil engineering as my discipline.
My first co-op was with a construction company and, after struggling through steel class, I knew that bridges would not hold my attention for the next 40 years. Fortunately, I landed a second co-op in water/wastewater treatment. I was encouraged to enter the American Water Works Association poster competition and decided to research slow sand water filtration, which became an obsession. I was astonished at the number of people –2 billion worldwide– who lack access to clean water and basic sanitation. I felt like I had won the lottery to be born into such a privileged life where these necessities are taken for granted. I was also excited that, by constructing a biosand sand filter costing a mere $20, water can be cleaned to 3-log removal! Such a simple and sustainable technology has the power to fundamentally change the lives of two billion people. I had found my niche in water/wastewater treatment. More important, I had found my passion in advocating for those deprived of the most basic of human rights.
From the time I was small, my parents instilled in me a strong sense of civil obligation. They always echoed the familiar adage of St. Luke, “To whom much is given, much shall be required.” This was true both in the sense of tangible and intangible things. This lead me to look for opportunities that combined my professional skills as an engineer and personal responsibility to assert positive impact in global society. Worldwide, 90% of the world’s engineers work for 10% of the world’s population. To offset this gross imbalance, I wanted to be a champion for the developing world, infrastructure development, and capacity building.
As a student at Ohio Northern University, I was able to contribute to a professor’s on-going work in the Artibonite Valley in Haiti which gave me an eye-opening experience to living conditions in other parts of the world. My senior capstone project included designing a springbox system in Les Forges to provide clean water to two nearby villages. After working in Haiti, I wanted to find another opportunity for engineering volunteerism post-graduation. I found the solution as a founding member of Engineers Without Borders (EWB) Central Ohio Professionals, in October 2007.
In August 2008, I spearheaded the adoption of the Cameroon project, which I now lead. Cameroon, which is located in West Central Africa, is called “Africa in miniature” for its geological and cultural diversity and is home to over 200 different linguistic groups. The project is located in the West province, about 250 km from the capital, Yaoundé. French and English are the official languages. Batoula, where the project is located, is one of 15 villages that make up the Fondom (Chiefdom) of Bafounda.
In February 2009, I spent one week in the village of Batoula assessing community needs. To say that that the trip was one of discovery is an understatement, in more ways than one. I have traveled to more than 40 countries, and the developing world is not divergent from my normal travels, but the primitive conditions in which the villagers live, and the hardships they deal with every day, are unimaginable. Children keep house, which for many of them is at the expense of going to school, while their parents work in the fields. They walked several miles to fetch 10 gallons of contaminated water. To see a 5-year-old carrying 75 pounds of water on his head was not uncommon, although there are several weeks each year when water sources run dry and even contaminated water is unavailable.
Lack of clean water has caused hundreds of deaths from malaria, cholera, dysentery, typhoid and other waterborne diseases long ago eliminated in the U.S. While treatment of the contaminated surface water sources was not feasible, preliminary water quality testing showed that the ground water was potable. Returning stateside, the team spent more than a year researching borehole well drilling, pumping, storage, and distribution alternatives and ultimately constructed two borehole wells with hand pumps at the school and health clinic during a return trip to Batoula in August 2010. Additionally, focus groups and individual family surveys were conducted at that time to ascertain the present level of health within the village and to establish a baseline for measuring improved quality of life as a result of the project.
On my most recent rip, I traveled in late December 2012. Arriving in Douala felt like putting on pajamas, familiar and comfortable, aside from the heat and humidity of course. Sometime in the last 4 years, Cameroon had become a summer home, of sorts, for my heart. While the village kids still shouted, “Les Blancs viennent!” (“The Whites are coming!”),our group was no longer an arresting curiosity, but an assemblage of friends. Instead of jaw-dropping stares at our pale skin, there was jubilation in recognizing familiar faces from the other side of the world.
The purpose of this trip was to install an electric pump powered by solar panels with elevated storage and distribution. The gravity flow system necessitated building a geosynthetic reinforced soil retaining (GRS) tower, on which a pair of 5,000L is elevated thereby providing adequate pressure to 3 tap stands. First, the soil was leveled and compacted before laying a layer of gravel for drainage. After the 2 meter tower was constructed, the tanks were rolled a half-mile to the site and sanitized before being hoisted atop the tower. In the absence of modern appurtenances, the engineer must rely on his creative problem-solving skills so some old-fashioned surveying was done using a tape measure, string, and a level to plot out the distribution lines and level the tower. Over 2 km was trenched by hand in 3 days with the assistance of more than 125 community members! We underestimated villagers’ industriousness and desire to provide the sweat-equity that would supply precious, potable water a stone’s throw from home! Pipe was then fitted, sanitized, and installed. Three tap stands were constructed at the market, Chefferie (King’s residence), and the construction site. Both connections to the tanks and check values to the distribution lines were installed. Finally, a wood structure was constructed to elevate the solar panels such that maximum sunlight is received to power the system. In addition, the structure was outfitted with an access ladder and platform so that weekly maintenance (dusting) of the solar panels could be performed with ease. This process necessitated the removal of a few rather large trees in the area, but several small children with machetes were able to bring those down quickly and easily, while the EWB team looked on in wonder, pondering the myriad of safety violations being committed! In their zeal to help, the children in the village work just as hard, if not harder, than the adults and did much of the back-breaking labor throughout the construction process.
Of course, no EWB project is complete without a few bumps in the road. The drilling of the borehole well was sponsored by Diageo-Guinness Cameroon. During negotiations to procure the pump, the team discovered that the well was not developed properly by the driller, yielding only 25% of expected flow. Although the well depth is 64 m, flow from the two large aquifers at 25 and 45m were not incorporated. In addition, the aquifer step-test was only performed in 3, 1-hour intervals, instead of the usual minimum of 12 hours. While it was disappointing for the team to depart the country unable to see water flowing out of the taps, the biggest devastation was leaving the villagers in a quandary with only our promises to resolve the issue. Fortunately, Guinness has agreed to drill another well to meet our needs. My team has a 4-year working relationship with a driller from a nearby village. Acting as general contractor, they will install the pump and solar panels and then flush and disinfect the distribution system. The work is expected to be completed by June 2013. The team has planned a post-assessment trip for August 2013. The Association for the Development of Batoula (ADEBAT), the local NGO with whom EWB works, estimates that 72%-80% of the population of Batoula will now have access to clean water as a result of EWB projects!
It was also special to experience New Year’s in Cameroon. Although it is iconified as “The Crossroads of the World,” the villagers have never heard of some silly ball dropping in Times Square! Rather, New Year’s Eve is a quiet affair. New Year’s Day is spent preparing a feast for visiting family and friends. Evening is more raucous, when there is singing, dancing, and drinking. The team also attended a funeral during the trip. It was a live music celebration of life for the woman who had passed on. On our previous trip, the team had the opportunity to attend a wedding as well. Our attendance at both functions was considered a great honor to the families, and we were beholden to be included in such solemn events. In show of their appreciation for EWB’s contributions to the Village, a traditional celebration with music, dancing, and singing was put on. During this ceremony, the team members were crowned honorary nobles of the village. I was crowned as “Mafo” or Queen of the village. The whole team really enjoyed this special festivity after 2 weeks of physical labor!
At five years in, the Cameroon Project has the makings of success, and I am even more passionate in my commitment to the village of Batoula. I haven’t just completed a couple of infrastructure projects in a tiny village in Africa. I have gained a true cultural experience and have come to consider the people of Batoula part of my extended family. Despite living in abject poverty and oppression, joy exudes from everyone I has met, which humbles me on a daily basis. The villagers have few material possessions, yet they are rich in things money cannot buy – a strong sense of family and community and a genuine appreciation for living. It paints a new perspective on what is really important. The villagers in Cameroon see EWB as a symbol of hope to better their quality of life because they don’t have the education, training or opportunity to do so. In my view, clean water is an essential life force and a basic human right. Breaking the cycle of poverty begins with the ability to survive and be healthy. From there, one can begin to improve one’s life.
When I went off to college determined to change the world, I had no idea the world would change me. I am more appreciative of my blessings and more aware of the needs of others. In pursuit of restoring the balance, I serve fellow citizens of the world with a happy heart, taking from each experience much more than I am able to give. I am resolute in my goal to reach out to residents of other developing countries who are in desperate need of clean water, and I know other opportunities to help will come. I believe that an individual’s ability to affect change is boundless, and as a humanitarian engineer, I am always seeking to inspire fellow engineers to the call of service. A single drop in a pond radiates out in many ways; similarly humanitarian work radiates out in ways that we will never know.
“Do your little bit of good where you are; it’s those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world.”
—Archbishop Desmond Tutu
I hope you found this post to be insightful, and don’t forget to leave comments and tell us YOUR story!
“Mafo” Kate Johnson
Vice Chair, US Delegate, Young Engineers/Future Leaders Committee
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