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Touching Lives Through Service

For members of UA’s Engineers Without Borders, a service-learning trip to southeast Asia drives home their potential to make a difference worldwide.

By Allison Bridges and Mary Wymer

They traveled to Peru to improve drinking water and waste water systems in two villages. They significantly improved plumbing in several homes and restored an old baseball field in Hale County, Ala. They studied residential water sources in Cambodia as part of an ongoing quest to boost their quality.

They are members of UA’s Engineers Without Borders (EWB), and when they hear of someone in need, they are there to help—no matter how far they have to travel to do it.

EWB’s mission is to assist developing communities, locally, nationally and internationally. Through overseas service, the members of EWB are exposed to new challenges and ideas, and their understanding of U.S. engineering practices and methodology is supplemented by experience with those of other countries.

Ynhi Thai, a senior majoring in chemical and biological engineering, has played a key role in many of EWB’s initiatives over the past several years. By the end of her very first chapter meeting, she was hooked on the idea of implementing sustainable engineering solutions for disadvantaged communities; since 2005, she has participated in numerous EWB service learning projects, both around the state and around the world. She attributes her motivation to her background and her family upbringing.

In 1991, Thai, her parents and grandmother immigrated to the United States from Vietnam in hopes of a better future. Despite a difficult beginning, Thai says, her parents worked tirelessly to attain career success.

“My work ethic comes from my determination to prove that my parents’ perseverance was not wasted,” she says. She also credits the local citizens who supported her family during their early years in America. “These people were devoted to public service and to helping my family,” Thai says. “I have a sincere desire to make a difference and serve where there is a disparity, as my success is a product of the hope and generosity of others.”

One of EWB’s most recent service learning projects strengthened Thai’s role as both a leader and an international volunteer. Exposed to the issues of developing countries during EWB’s previous trip to Peru, she was inspired to help those living in the villages within her birth country: Vietnam.

Under the guidance of EWB’s faculty advisers, Drs. Philip and Pauline Johnson, Thai began planning the project in fall 2007. Her initial goal was to replace unstable bridges with concrete footbridges in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta region. The construction and travel costs became too great, however, and the team switched focus. Partnering with Dr. Joe Brown, assistant professor of New College and biological sciences, they formed a plan to test water sources for a pilot treatment plant and evaluate the effectiveness of existing filters.

The trip, which took place in May 2009, was divided into two different projects. EWB first worked with Lien Aid, an organization that provides high-quality, low-cost drinking water to rural Cambodia, by collecting water samples from about 20 different sources in Kampong Speu province. They analyzed these for arsenic, thermotolerant coliform bacteria and pH. For the second project, in Siem Reap province, the group gathered water samples around the village and communicated with villagers to determine the effectiveness of a recently installed filtration system.

For Thai, working with 10 other students determined to make a difference was one of the most rewarding aspects of the trip. “We recruited a great team, and their hard work and dedication are testimony to each member’s exceptional ability, character and leadership,” Thai says.

Although most of the team fell ill during the trip—one student was hospitalized with acute amoebic dysentery—they managed to complete each project on schedule. “Despite feeling sick, our students got out of bed and were determined to achieve the goals we had set for each day,” says Thai. Project participants maintain that the gratification that came from upgrading the villagers’ living conditions was worth the discomfort of working while ill.

“Cambodians pay about five times more than Americans do for water, and it is completely untreated. Seeing the wells and ponds that some of the villagers drink from will break your heart,” says Lissa Petry, a sophomore at UA who is majoring in civil engineering. “The information and suggestions we provided will help many people who currently have no access to clean water, and it will significantly improve their way of life.”

Sonja Gregorowicz, a senior in chemical and biological engineering, was moved by the opportunity to meet with local villagers, listen to their stories and learn about the problems they encounter on an everyday basis.

“We were able to become personally invested in our project, as locals were eager to share stories about the history of the Khmer people and the village’s recent genocide and landmine problems,” says Gregorowicz. “Gaining an understanding of how small projects, such as our own, can collectively support larger educational efforts and change public policy was personally rewarding.”

Dr. Philip Johnson, associate professor of civil engineering, says international experiences are increasingly important for future engineers because of the growing globalization of the industry.

“To be a practicing engineer today, one must experience the many extremes of living around the world,” Johnson says. “Students need to understand the world, and realize the possibilities and places that lie beyond their backyards.”

“Engineers are problem solvers. When we become aware of a new problem, we set out to fix it,” explains Gregorowicz. “By learning about the extent of problems faced by people in the villages of Cambodia and becoming directly involved in projects that affect them, I gained a new appreciation for the ethics of engineering.”

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