November 9, 2022
Many things in life bring communities together: sports, literature, politics, but nothing can bring a population together quite like working alongside one another to ensure they have one thing that is essential for life. A group of Mississippi State Bagley College of Engineering students traveled to the community of Santa Teresita (Chillanes Canton) in Ecuador to collect information needed to design and improve a water distribution system that will run from a natural flowing stream to the village. Once completed, it will allow the village’s residents easy access to water. But before the work could begin building a relationship between the MSU Engineers Without Borders chapter and the Santa Teresita community was vital.
“For a project like this where you are essentially an outsider coming in, building trust is so important. It’s important to the community and important for the organization,” John Ramirez-Avila, advisor for Engineering Without Borders – MSU, explained. “If that trust, that community isn’t there, it’s hard to reach our goals.
A village with a population of just a few hundred, Santa Teresita is located in the central part of Ecuador. Getting there was no small feat for the team of four students and their advisor. This trip, Ramirez-Avila explained, was two years overdue thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic and all of the travel restrictions that were in place at the time. A completely different group of students began this journey with the citizens of Santa Teresita, visiting the village in 2019 to begin establishing a relationship while assessing the community’s water supply needs. The MSU student group planned a second trip the following year in 2020, but the pandemic caused the project to grind to a halt.
With each wave of a new variant, a second trip was pushed back again and again. Finally, in August 2022, a group of students returned to the village and began their work. Ramirez-Avila explained that a significant part of this most recent trip was rebuilding their relationship with the community that first year. Since communication was limited during the pandemic due to numerous factors, the team started back at square one in establishing a relationship with the village residents.
Bethany Crane was one of the four students who traveled with the student group. She is also the Engineers Without Borders – MSU chapter president. The senior civil engineering major said she’d wanted to participate in an Engineers Without Borders project since she was enrolled at the university. For everything to align her senior year, allowing her to go, she said, was a dream come true.
“I’ve always wanted to go on an Engineers Without Borders trip. Crane said. “I remember at orientation when they had the organization fairs; they talked about EWB’s trip to Zambia and how amazing it was. I knew I wanted to be a part of the group’s next project right then.”
While on this summer’s trip to Ecuador, Crane, along with fellow students Catherine Boltz, Shuchi Patel and Lorena Chavarro-Chaux, had the opportunity to improve Santa Teresita’s water system and strengthen the group’s ties to the community. Both Chavarro-Chaux and Crane agreed that the work was hard but gratifying. Chavarro-Chaux, a graduate student and Crane, knew they wanted to work in water resource management. Working on this project and seeing the difference made through their hard work only confirmed their paths in their education.
Chavarro-Chaux explained that the group had to hike uneven terrain daily to visit the possible water catchment locations. While there, they needed to ensure the water quality was good and check the flow rate to ensure the village would have enough clean water for their daily needs. There were also repairs to the current water distribution system that needed to be made. Every day people in the community pitched in to help the group complete their tasks and afterward prepared meals for them as the group played ultimate frisbee with the kids and got to know the residents of Santa Teresita.
“The community was amazing,” Chavarro-Chaux said. “We met many amazing women and men in the community. Every day we had unimaginable support from the community. Santa Teresita is a community that has a lot to teach us in several aspects of life. They took care of us like family members.”
Crane explained that type of community support is vital for projects like this, especially since those who built the system often move on to other projects once they are complete. Part of the project was teaching the residents to use the equipment the group installed and to manage the system once the group left. The community also has to establish rules and bylaws regarding the management of the system.
Both Chavarro-Chaux and Crane said they enjoyed the engineering side of the trip but spending time with the community was the most memorable. The group spent a lot of time talking to and getting to know the people of the Santa Teresita community. They chatted with the adults of the village and played soccer with the younger ones. On their last day there, a dinner was held in their honor to say thank you to a small group of students that flew thousands of miles to begin the work that would make a small community’s day-to-day life a bit better.
“That last night was the most memorable,” Chavarro-Chaux said. “We met what seemed like every member of Santa Teresita and realized how grateful they were to have us there. I’m so grateful to have been able to go on this trip. There’s a special place in my heart for the people of Santa Teresita.”
Engineers Without Borders-MSU is a student chapter of the national organization. EWB works to provide aid to international communities through the planning and implementation of engineering projects.
The club also participates in social, fundraising, and community service activities in the Starkville community and nearby regions. All majors and classifications are welcome.
MSU is Mississippi’s leading university, available online at www.msstate.edu.
By Camille Carskadon