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Education Abroad

Engineers Without Borders

Engineers without Borders - Bolivia

Destination: Bolivia
Hometown: Richmond, Virginia
Major: Engineering

What was the purpose of your trip?

The goal of this Spring 2013 trip was to gather more data to support the VCU Chapter of Engineers Without Border’s (EWB-VCU) water distribution project in the rural Bolivian village of San Antonio de Lomerio (SAL). The partnership between SAL and EWB-VCU was started in 2012, and is focused on EWB-VCU researching and designing a system that alleviates the drought the village experiences during their 6 month dry-season.

The travel team was made up for four VCU Engineering majors, 1 VCU Translation and Interpretation major, one VCU Environmental Sciences major and two professional engineering mentors. This team conducted extensive geographical and topographical survey of the area the village is in. Additionally water analysis tests were conducted on all the village’s used and potential water sources. Lastly comprehensive health and water-usage survey was conducted by interviewing 30+ families within the community of San Antonio de Lomerio. An alternative water delivery system was proposed.

What program and destination did you choose and why?

The destination was an indigenous village of San Antonio de Lomerio, Bolivia. It is about 100 km away from the nearest city, Concepcion. The students traveled with the VCU chapter of Engineers without Borders. The program was matched to the VCU chapter based off mentor expertise and experiences. This village has been in need of a clean, sustainable water source for a very long time. Recent connection to the country electrical grid allows for more options to be undertaken so Engineers without Borders-VCU, under guidance of the professional chapter Engineers without Borders-James River, intends to improve quality of life for this community.

What classes did you take while abroad and how would you compare them to taking courses on campus at VCU?

A one credit engineering independent study course was created for the Bolivia trip due to the amount of work that was input prior, during, and after travel. This experience was unlike any other experience here at VCU. There is something exceptionally satisfying about seeing textbook knowledge come to life in the field. Being able to apply stagnant equations to a real life situation to improve the lives of people in a very tangible way is a rare opportunity provided by this course.

What were your expectations before you went? How did those change once you arrived in your host country?

Many travel members were expecting a very work-heavy trip. We didn’t know how much interaction we’d be able to have with the community, or how much meaning the interaction would have to us. San Antonio welcomed the team with a ceremony. It was beyond moving and no experience will ever compare to it. Members of the community often came with us during our field sample collections. The children peeked around door frames to watch us perform water quality tests. We played an amazing game of futbol with the community (we lost horribly). There was a bond created that will stay with all of us forever. It was also shocking to see the community hooked up to huge satellite dishes. They were watching TV, but had no access to clean water.

What was the biggest challenge you faced while adjusting to your host country?

The language barrier was quite apparent with some of the team members. However, we had a very talented translator, Alyssa Dalos, with us. She gave us insights to the cultural norms to help us adjust and avoid making any offensive blunders. It was definitely fun to see everyone try to communicate through pantomime.

What contact did you have with students from the host country? Other international and American students?

As was mentioned earlier, we were fully immersed in the host country and culture. The only American contact we had was from each other.

What were your most memorable experiences?

Playing futbol :) It was an incredibly bonding experience. The welcoming ceremony was also extremely touching. To think our mere presence could inspire such hope within a community is more empowering than words can explain.

If you could do it all over, would you choose the same study abroad program again?

Yes. Our whole team greatly enjoyed the experience to bond and learn from the people of San Antonio de Lomerio while working with them on their water project.

For you, what are the benefits of studying abroad?

There are so many experiences a book cannot teach a student. Engineering is much more than “fix it and leave it.” Sustainability within a culture is so important. Engineering a fantastic solar, compacting latrine could be a great idea, but practically speaking, it’s useless in a culture that will never use a latrine system.

How has your study abroad experience helped your language skills?

It certainly gave a great experience to our translator, Alyssa. She was exposed to a new dialect of Spanish. There are certain nuances she had to pick up as she goes went that she had never encountered before. She had a new vocabulary to work with that was far more technical she had worked with before as well. She also had experiences translating documents for us, from maps to company reports to official legal documents. She translated from English to Spanish as well as Spanish to English.

How has your study abroad experience changed your perception of your own culture?

It exposed a lot of the things we take for granted here in the US. We always complain of slow internet. This community lines up at 5 AM just wait for hours to get water. Then they have to haul their water back to their homes and sanitize it themselves. People in the states grab a bottle of water without a second thought.

What do you wish you had been told before you studied abroad?

For several members of our team it was their first time out of the United States of America, and some had been worried about traveling to a third world country. As a group we learned that if you are prepared for the trip it can go as easily as going to another state. We did our research on the culture and history of Bolivia, made sure to have our own medical kit and water during our trip, and had strong connections within to country to help aide our in-country travel. With all these steps our team traveled safely and without any problems.

What would you say to a student who is not considering studying abroad?

Our trip is a great example of an international experience for students who don’t have a semester to dedicate to traditional study abroad programs. So we would encourage students to investigate VCU student organizations and efforts that focuses on abroad causes and travel. These trips can provide a hands on learning experience that will greatly supplement your VCU experience. 

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