Ask any member of UMR’s Engineers Without Borders chapter why they devote so much time to the organization (time they could otherwise spend prepping for exams or relaxing with friends) and you’ll likely hear about their desire to help others. Diverse in majors and life experiences, the students are unified by their desire to bring safe drinking water and improved sanitation to the world’s poorest countries. This year, more than 60 students traveled thousands of miles to establish sustainable solutions for residents in Bolivia, Guatemala and Honduras.
Jennifer Hoffman, a sophomore in aerospace engineering from Chesterfield, Mo., and Sarah Shell, a sophomore in environmental engineering from Barnhart, Mo., joined 23 others for a two-week trip to Bolivia’s Rio Colorado Technical Agricultural High School in May. Despite its lush, 400-acre rainforest setting, the high school lacks a safe and sustainable water supply for its 260 students, who stay in dormitories on campus and return to their homes in the region only on weekends.
The team’s goals were to drill a new well, build clean water showers for the students and assess wastewater strategies, as well as provide new lab supplies and manuals to the professors.
The action-packed trip had all the makings of a Hollywood movie, complete with a mountaintop sunrise and encounters with wood cockroaches and other creatures. Students investigated dozens of wells, occasionally hacking their way through overgrown paths in the rainforest in order to collect samples from river and streams, Shell says.
“Our EWB group also stayed a night in the jungle and got to go zip-lining through the tree tops,” Shell adds. “The morning after that a few of us also hiked to the top of the mountain to watch the sun rise.”
Shell and Hoffman agree that the trip’s highlight was showing the finished girls’ shower to the students and their families.
“They came in and started pulling the strings to make the water come out,” Hoffman explains. “They were so excited and happy, and it gave us a boost to finish the rest of our projects. It felt so good to see that our hard work was appreciated by not only the students, but their families, too. ”
Hoffman, who has a Spanish minor, also enjoyed the chance to test her language skills.
“I had never been in a Spanish-speaking country where it wasn’t a touristy place and someone would know English,” Hoffman says. “I liked being thrown in and finding out that I was able to fend for myself. It was a great experience and confidence builder when I could talk to and understand the natives.”