Eighty miles northwest of Guatemala City sits a small town known as El Cebollín. Here, children were traveling two kilometers over a dusty and isolated road to and from the nearest community for their education. While the town had built a small, 25-pupil wooden schoolhouse, it was always meant to be just a temporary structure and couldn’t accommodate all of the community’s children. Answering this growing need, UNLV’s Engineers Without Borders (EWB), along with its affiliated professional chapter, has committed to building a safe and sustainable schoolhouse for El Cebollín.
People can be quick to attribute philanthropy with careers in medicine, law, or social services. Members from UNLV’s EWB chapter are working diligently to add engineering to the mix. Their mission is simple: empower communities to meet their basic human needs and equip leaders to solve the world’s most pressing challenges through engineering.
“Engineers Without Borders can change the narrative regarding engineering, and what kind of field you should go into if you want to help people,” said Dr. Erica Marti, EWB faculty advisor and civil and environmental engineering assistant professor.
“Through EWB you get to meet people in different countries, learn more about them and really make a difference, which is typically hard to do at the student level,” said Erick Serrano, EWB student chapter vice president and dual computer science and physics major. “This experience is making me want to be more involved in humanitarian projects in my career.”
Engineering Change Abroad
Each EWB international program requires a five-year commitment that can involve participating in various projects such as building latrines, wells, or other structures. The student organization works closely with the local EWB professional chapter to combine resources and complete the programs.
UNLV’s chapter has participated in two prior programs, one in Ghana and the other designing and building composting latrines in San Francisco Libre, Nicaragua. Many government-built homes were not being lived in due to a lack of sanitation facilities. EWB helped make the homes livable and provided the designs so the community members themselves can continue building their own latrines.
Looking to make a similar impact, the organization chose the project in Guatemala to help provide the small town of El Cebollín with a 1,500-square-foot schoolhouse. Their new facility will include three classrooms, an office, a kitchen, and a sanitary facility for up to 75 elementary and middle school students.
Buy-in from the community itself is paramount to the success of a program. To be considered, community members have to submit an application to Engineers Without Borders USA, where it gets approved and placed for “adoption.” Once selected, the participating EWB chapter makes multiple visits, including an assessment trip, at least one trip for implementation, another for monitoring and evaluation, and a close-out.
Work on the current project began in January 2020, when several EWB members took an assessment trip to collect hydrogeologic samples. Once they arrived in El Cebollín, they conducted a community survey to determine the town’s social and economic needs.
Leadership from the small town has been exceptional. “We want the community to have ownership of the project and make their voices heard. That way, when we’re long gone, they’re still able to continue with the process if they choose to do so,” said Maylinn Rosales, the EWB professional lead for the Nicaragua project.
To complete the project, EWB must raise $35,000 to cover the cost of construction. Currently, the team has raised $14,000 in funds through grants and negotiated with the municipality to cover 25% of the construction cost.
Meeting the Challenges of a COVID-19 World
While the organization’s commitment is strong as ever, the global COVID-19 pandemic has presented its set of challenges to the project. Typically, students spend months following the initial assessment raising funds by reaching out to local companies and bringing awareness to the program. As one of the hardest-hit states in the country, many companies in Nevada were left unable to participate in philanthropic endeavors.
Adapting to this obstacle, EWB is participating in Rebel Raiser, UNLV’s peer-to-peer fundraising platform, to raise $5,000 for the schoolhouse. “The COVID-19 pandemic has had serious consequences, but we want to be proactive because there are things we CAN do in the meantime. We want to be prepared with all the tools and knowledge necessary once we’re able to travel,” said Serrano.
Like many countries, Guatemala has only recently opened its international airport for tourists. With the uncertainty of travel, the organization is working on preparing a remote implementation plan that can allow them to hire skilled and unskilled laborers, as well as representatives that can collect data from abroad. Despite the unprecedented obstacles, the organization remains deeply committed to the program.
For many involved in EWB, the commitment is personal. “As an immigrant, giving back to the community has been incredibly rewarding, ” said Juan Rosales, EWB professional co-lead. "The Nicaragua project was very personal to me because that’s where I’m from and building the latrines was a way for me to give back to my own community."
For Serrano, participating in the Guatemala program has solidified his desire to give back and learn more about his grandparent’s experiences in Mexico. “I told my grandparents about this project and they talked to me about their own experiences carrying buckets of water back to their community when they were younger. I never knew that about them, and for me, it’s made me want to be more involved and give back to those less fortunate.”
Joining EWB has also allowed members to cultivate their professional skills. The organization boasts members from all areas of engineering and the collaborative nature of their work allows them the opportunity to learn from each other, said UNLV student Alfredo Garzona, project coordinator. “The experience of coming together for a common goal is important for team building. No matter what major you’re in, you’re going to work as a team to get the job done. I’m a mechanical engineering major, so I do a lot of hands-on learning. That’s a very unique experience,”
Marti added, “EWB is a very beneficial volunteering organization that helps students who are looking for practical experience; whether it’s cultivating their engineering skills or adapting to unique experiences and being exposed to other cultures."
EWB plans to travel to Guatemala in summer 2021, when they will spend two weeks onsite overseeing the design and implementation. Construction will take three months to complete and the team will travel again in 2022 to oversee minor repairs.