VU is changing the world, with water

Written by Nicholas Serrano. Posted in Featured

Published on February 28, 2012 with No Comments

Hot showers and clean, running water… these are things most Americans take for granted.

It’s no secret that in many regions around the world, simply having water in any capacity, drinkable or not, is a valuable commodity. It’s a constant struggle for life in these places and often it takes a caring group of selfless individuals willing to go out of their way to help those who often cannot help themselves. The Valparaiso University Chapter of Engineers Without Borders (EWB-Valpo) is one of these groups.

Part of a national organization whose goal is to promote and help develop sustainability in developing countries, EWB-Valpo worked in Northwest Kenya from 2004-2008 under the leadership of faculty advisor, Associate Professor Michael Hagenberger. Since 2009, they have been working in the village of Masaera-Kilema, Tanzania. They help to transform the village into a self-sustaining community, working side by side with locals to create or repair water sources as well as provide social / cultural education to help create long-term solutions.

It’s a challenging task. There are lots of dynamics involved in solving the problems these communities face.  A community in Africa can’t just go and buy a windmill, said Hagenberger.  EWB-Valpo first must research to find out what can be done locally within each community. The solution to these communities’ water problems must be solved in a way in which the locals can maintain after EWB-Valpo has left. Often, the local villagers do not have access to even the most simple of tools, such as hammers or shovels.

“It’s a question of sustainability, the more complex the system is, the less likely it is to be sustainable. That’s part education, part skill. It’s availability to supplies and building materials. Just giving someone a hammer or saw, it changes the whole dynamics of that person’s life,” said Hagenberger.

Despite the “engineering” part of its name, EWB-Valpo incorporates skills and strengths from a variety of fields. It’s a program requiring work in a multi-disciplinary capacity, teamwork and group cohesiveness. To that end, EWB-Valpo has partnered with the VU College of Nursing by bringing on its new health and safety advisor, Assistant Professor Amy Cory.

“A lot of what we have to do has very little to do with engineering and more with health, education, sociology and psychology,” said Hagenberger. “How do you get the community to understand how they are becoming sick and how to fix this?  It’s interesting because a lot of the needs are infrastructure needs, but in order to make the projects successful you need strengths from all other areas.”

The students who make up EWB-Valpo hail from a variety of educational backgrounds.  Their individual stories on how they became involved in EWB-Valpo, their experiences and what they hope to gain are all unique.

”I became interested in EWB-Valpo and joined. I liked what we were doing, decided to continue and I’ve now been a part of the program for three years,” said EWB-Valpo President Ivan Martynenko. “I’ve developed leadership skills, cross-cultural social skills and teamwork.  It’s a challenge to get your message across to the villagers and to understand them. The idea of community service and to help others to have what we take for granted, that’s what keeps me motivated.”

EWB-Valpo’s efforts to create permanent sustainability in the areas it works means it must find a way to both solve the community’s immediate water needs and teach the locals to continue the work once the group is gone.

In Kenya, for example, EWB-Valpo built wells and installed pumps powered by solar panels during the day and wind mills at night. Once the equipment was up and running and the water was flowing, the community was able to start farming, selling the newly-available food at the market and stimulating its economy.

“After I had been involved with mission trips in high school, I thought EWB-Valpo would be a good way to help others. It’s helped me develop leadership and teamwork,” said Michelle Roy, former EWB-Valpo president. “I learned how to delegating responsibilities and cross-cultural communication skills to educate the villagers on what we’re doing and why it’s important.”

According to Hagenberger, it costs more than $40,000 to send 12 students overseas, including travel expenses, safe transportation and lodging, translators and other costs.  Throughout the year, EWB-Valpo does a variety of fundraising events in addition to grant applications–and any other ways it can to help fund these trips.  It is the group’s hope is to eventually engage the whole VU campus and the Valparaiso community at large.

EWB-Valpo is part of the national organization Engineers Without Borders-USA.  For more information, to become involved or to donate to EWB-Valpo, visit www.valpo.edu/student/ewb or www.ewb-usa.org.

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