Engineering Now .: Volume 4 - Edition 6 .: March 2008

Engineers Without Borders - Profile

Students who choose to attend university in North America often arrive at school with the notion that a good post-secondary education will broaden their horizons and open their minds to new ideas and opportunities.

While that is an accurate expectation for most, much of the growth and learning that occurs at university happens within the sheltered confines of the lecture hall and the boundaries of the campus. Less common is the opportunity for students to take their learning off-site, where they could stretch their limits even further, and gain a whole new perspective on the world before they finally leave school to enter it.

Some students at The University of Western Ontario take it upon themselves to include these kinds of experiences in their formal education, through internships, co-ops and other ventures.

Western Engineering is home to one student group, known as Engineers Without Borders (Western Chapter), that has it as part of their mandate to routinely send students overseas to volunteer their time and skills in select parts of Africa, including Burkina Faso, Ghana, Zambia and Malawi.

Marika Marty, a 23 year old 4th year Mechanical Engineering student, is one such person. Last year, as a volunteer with Engineers Without Borders (and also vice-president of the Western Chapter), she spent four months between May and August in Malawi working on various environmentally-oriented projects.

And while the focus of Marty’s trip was to help the residents of Malawi improve their quality of life in practical ways, she came away with something more intangible – a whole new outlook on what it means to live in North America, and as part of the global village.

“I think one of the most powerful things I came to fully understand is that it’s pure chance that I was born into a Western country instead of Ghana, or Malawi,” says Marty.

“And there’s no reason the people in these countries should have to struggle so much to survive, especially since we know first hand that life without this struggle is possible.”

“We need to understand that we now live in a world driven by global economic forces. We are all connected to each other, more directly than we even realize, at the same time the extreme polarization between the quality of life in one society versus another highlights the injustices that exist in this system. We need to start asking ourselves, are we ok with living in a world where an unlimited supply of Coke’s Fanta products can reach so many isolated villages, but medical supplies don’t?”

The students who are involved with Engineers Without Borders (EWB) make it their business to be aware of this global dynamic, and then they try to effect change in two ways.

Along with working to promote public awareness of the broader issues within the community, they also regularly send people like Marty into some of the most underdeveloped areas of the world to try and create change in simple but powerful ways. The organization’s motto is “Simple Technology. Dramatic results”, which is a direct reference to what they try to accomplish when overseas.

Marty spent time on a reforestation initiative, where she helped the residents of Malawi understand the value of their natural resources, and how to manage and protect them for the future. She taught local women the science behind the burning of wood, so that they could improve the efficiency of the burning, and in turn buy less wood, do less physical labour and enjoy greater health benefits as a result. And all the while she was gaining a much clearer picture of how poverty is largely a result of circumstance, and that small solutions can make all the difference.

“I left with an understanding that people may be poor, but they’re working their butts off. The root causes of poverty are complicated, and there is no quick fix solution to break the cycle,” she says.

“There are, however, simple skills, and technologies that when appropriately incorporated into a community’s economic, cultural, and social context can have a dramatic impact on helping people get up on those first few rungs of the ladder. For instance a simple manual pump near a water source can allow a farmer to harvest an entire second crop in the dry season, effectively doubling their yearly produce and increasing food security for their family as well as their yearly income.”

Helping these experiences to sink in was the fact that Marty was completely immersed in her environment. While on the internship she stayed with a host family who lived in a home with no running water, electricity or modern conveniences of any kind. She ate the traditional food of the region, including the staple Nsima, beans and canola leaves with tomatoes and red onions. Marty recalls having a difficult time with how to respond when the locals would ask her what the staple food is in Canada.

In the months that she has been back at home, even these small things have altered the way she looks at her own life here in this country.

Going overseas with EWB is at least a 16 month commitment. Having already trained for and completed her own internship, Marty is currently involved in training and preparing the next group of students who will travel to Africa this summer.

Initially the volunteers travel as a group. But once they arrive at their destination, they are dispersed individually across the region, with each person working with different local organizations and on different projects.

Marty will soon graduate with her engineering degree, and she has already decided that this is the kind of work she wants to do in the future and will go where she is most needed.

“I’m pretty committed at this point,” she says. “Wherever I can be the most effective is where I will go.”

No matter where she ends up, Marty will continue to educate and inform those around her as to how their individual choices can indeed change the world.

“As Canadians we’re proud of our nation’s historical role in being leaders of humanitarian causes, but it’s time we started to wake up and smell the fair trade coffee. That’s our past, not our present. Why have we grown so apathetic, as a nation? We have been able to influence great positive change in the past, and we still have that power, and it starts right here at home. Which groceries we choose to buy, what clothes we choose to wear. The power of the consumer has never been so strong.”

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.: Becky Blue
Spencer Engineering Building, Room 2074
Telephone: (519) 850-2917 Fax: (519) 661-3808