While many of us often dream of making the world a better place, a small group of students at Cornell are working hard to turn that dream into reality. Members from Cornell’ s chapter of Engineers Without Borders will be spending the summer in Calcha, Bolivia, building a bridge that would help the local community become more sustainable.
Started during the 2011- 2012 academic year, this is EWB Cornell’s first project. Yezy Lim’ 17, executive board member, explained that one of the biggest problems that the rural community of Calcha faces is that of a lack of water and an access to farmland.
“…[it’s not] because they don’t make food, they just can’t collect the food during harvest time,” Lim said. “There’s a huge river that goes between their crops, and where the people live. It gets super rainy during harvest season, the river overflows and they can’t really access any of their crop.”
The aim of the project is to help increase the sustainability of the community by allowing them to harvest their own food. Because it is dangerous for the locals to cross the river when it is flooded, the team decided that building a bridge would be a feasible solution.
“We’re building a suspension bridge that is about 50m long, and it’s going to be built our of materials that are native to Bolivia, so we’re not importing any bridge materials from the US,” Lin said, “That bridge is going to connect the town to the crops so that even when the river is flooded, they can safely cross over the bridge and get access to their food, so that they don’t have to rely on their neighboring communities.”
The team has already had two assessment trips in the summers of 2014 and 2015 to understand the problem and the location.
“[The assessment trips helped understand] what the problem was, see what kind of soil there was so that we can figure out what kind of bridge we can build best, plan out what they [the community] actually need,” Lin said. “The 2016 trip is going to be eight students and four faculty members, and they are going to be there from middle of June to middle of August, to actually build the bridge from beginning to end.”
Lin, who has herself been on one of the assessment trips describes the experience as a powerful one.
“It’s a great experience not only because you get to see different cultures but because as college students you often feel powerless,” Lin said. “This makes us [college students] feel like we’re knowledgeable people who can actually make a difference.”
Bethany Schull ‘18, one of the members travelling to Bolivia this summer, agrees and underlines the sustainability of the projects that the organisation undertakes.
“For me our mission and our goal is so in line with how I feel about sustainable development should work, ” Schull said. “It’s not like we’re going into a community and telling them what they need to do in order to become better, they come to us with problems and questions and they work with us to find sustainable solutions.”
Currently, the team is divided into three different subteams — business, bridge and water. The business subteam is responsible for making the trips possible and raise enough money to make the project feasible. The bridge team has been involved with designing and redesigning the bridge, while the water subteam is presently a secondary project, which supposed to help improve the community’s access to water.
However, the structure of the team is open to change depending on the project. Lin emphasised that this flexibility, both in roles and in projects is at the very backbone of the team.
“While our current project is in Bolivia, the next one can be anywhere in the world. Depending on the community, our projects change. From creating agriculture systems, to dams, to roads, the projects are varied,” Lin said. “So depending on the project, the team will change.”
Not only does the team provide a chance to make a difference, Lin said that it also helps develop practical skills.
“It’s given me such incredible leadership experiences like leading a group of 43 students, logistics, organizational skills, time management,” Lin said. “Having that additional responsibility than just being a student has completely changed my experience here.”
Schull added that hands on experience is another important aspect of being a part of the project team.
“I’ll be writing design calculations for different parts of our bridge, and I’ll be using the skills I’ve learned in statics, and different courses,” Schull said. “ It’s really cool to see that the material we have learned so far at Cornell can actually be applied and useful.”
But when all is said and done, it is the idea of helping out to make a lasting change in the world that motivates the team to work hard.
“ I think it’s going to be a privilege for our entire team to be able to say that we built a bridge that will last for many many years and will help 200+ people, in Calcha Bolivia,” Lim said.