Five years ago, a team of students from Cornell Engineers Without Borders decided to build a bridge in Bolivia.
What had started as a trip to assess the water sanitation quality in Calcha, a small local village, turned into a recognition of the immediate need for access to farmland and transportation facilities, according to Jay Bender ’20 and Cynthia Horna ’19.
The villagers were earlier unable to access their farmland during the rainy season because of a dangerous river, but after the project was completed in the summer of 2016, the villagers had year-long access, according to Engineers Without Borders website.
A total of eight Cornell students worked on this project along with the Bolivian NGO National Chapter.
Together they created a design for the bridge, assigned a local committee for administration and designated people to excavate in a way that “every square kilometer people would be working and doing excavations,” Bender said.
In this way, Spencer Hong ’20 said that the project played an important role for encouraging local leadership and ownership.
To ensure the project could successfully carry on through the years, the same person was sent on two of the annual summer trips to Bolivia, according to Joseph Ienna, grad.
Ienna also added that it helped that many of the people were freshmen when the project first started.
Since water sanitation was the team’s very first objective before it quickly shifted to bridge-building, another unexpected result of the project was local leadership empowerment.
“We managed to cultivate a sense of belonging and ownership for the locals; they felt they had stake in the project, understood the value of building the bridge to increase sustainability and we offered them the technical knowledge to maintain it,” he said.
However, beyond the daunting task of bridge-building, this project did not come without due pressure.
It was imperative that their project was successful because in the past the villagers had either received “no foreign help”, or there had been a “misallocation of resources and miscommunication,” Hong said.
The organization obtained funds for this project through crowdfunding organized among their alumni network, Ienna said. Cornell also has an official crowdfunding channel, which helps procure funds for project teams like theirs.
Horna said she visited the village in Bolivia in 2016 to assess the final check of the project for the construction of the bridge “in order to ensure that they had not missed any materials.”
While language barriers were an added difficulty to the project, the team was lucky enough to not face legislative and bureaucratic barriers, Bender said.
Besides the fact that most of the team could communicate in Spanish, Bender said the team also quickly established a relationship with the town’s mayor.
At the end of the project, this mayor specifically reached out to the group, sending a personalized thank you note.
“[The mayor] thanked every member of the team for their contribution to supporting the local economy, promoting sustainability and for providing technical expertise for the locals to know how to maintain it in the future,” Bender said.
The project in Calcha is the first endeavour that Engineers Without Borders has seen through from start to finish. Another notable project is their first domestic project that is trying to provide mobile homes for homeless people in Binghamton.
Girisha Arora ’20 contributed reporting to this article.