Students volunteer in Central America
Published September 13, 2012
It’s a great example of caring, compassion and NDSU’s land-grant mission of service. This spring, six NDSU civil engineering students journeyed to Guatemala to build a water distribution system for an isolated village.
The students are members of the NDSU chapter of Engineers Without Borders, a group dedicated to building infrastructure in developing nations.
The NDSU contingent traveled to tiny Las Tablitas March 9-19, after the NDSU chapter found out about the community’s need through communications with a church group and Rotary International.
“We put in two water tanks and improved a third. We installed about 4,700 feet of PVC pipe, along with a pump, and we made adjustments to a spring box,” a structure engineered to make optimum use of a natural spring, explained Amanda Weber, a senior from St. Paul, Minn., who is the group’s president.
Before embarking on their trip, the NDSU students raised the funds necessary to purchase the $7,000 to $10,000 in materials for their service project.
The small community is tucked into the side of a large hill in Guatemala’s rain forest about 75 miles east of Guatemala City. Most of the roughly made wood houses have thatched roofs, but the nicer ones have roofs of tin sheeting. There are four concrete buildings in town – a pastor’s home, two churches and a school.
“There’s a dirt road in Las Tablitas,” said Weber, who is majoring in civil engineering and international studies. “We couldn’t drive in town, because we’d get stuck. So, we carried materials from the edge of the village.”
For the students, the 12-hour workdays proved to be a true labor of love. While they toiled side-by-side with the villagers and quickly developed lasting connections, they also found construction in a rain forest is not an easy task. Hilly terrain, coupled with heavy clay soil and wet conditions can be challenging.
“Trying to walk up a mountainside in mud was difficult. I fell a couple of times carrying an expensive piece of equipment,” said junior Chris Larson of Maple Grove, Minn., who is the group’s treasurer. “For me, the entire trip was memorable. This was my first time out of the country, and I had no idea what to expect.”
In the end, the smiles of the local people and the gratitude they expressed were all the thanks that were needed. Because of the NDSU project, 18 families, or about 75 people, now have easy access to spring water.
But, the group is not finished. The students noticed another pressing need in Las Tablitas.
“We’re designing a new school for them. The kindergarteners and second graders now are in a wooden shack with a mud floor. When we were there, the desks were in standing water,” Weber said. “Our goal is to go back in January and build another school to give the kids a safe and productive learning environment.”
Their organization’s gratifying service experience behind them, Weber and Larson have a message they’d like to share – a statement in concert with NDSU’s land-grant mission of quality education, leading research and outstanding service. “The reason most students join Engineers Without Borders is they want to use the skills they develop in school for the greater good, and find out how they can help make the world a better place,” Weber said. “Engineering really creates a better society through water projects or roads, whether in the U.S. or worldwide. Engineers Without Borders helps students start practicing that before they graduate.”
Also participating in the Guatemala project were NDSU students Kevin Kruger from Rice, Minn.; Grady Anderson from Grand Rapids Minn.; Katie Whelen from Bloomington Minn.; and Dan Elemes from Hugo, Minn. They were accompanied by mentor Joel Paulsen of Kadrmas, Lee and Jackson Inc. of Moorhead, Minn.