From the moment they set foot in West Africa, engineering students Megan Smithmyer and Ross Varin encountered surprises.
On their first day in Sierra Leone they spotted an NC State block “S” sticker in the back window of a truck 4,500 miles from campus.
Smithmyer and Varin made the journey over winter break to find ways to bring clean water to Allentown, home to a school, medical center and fast-growing population near the capital, Freetown.
City of Hope
As volunteers with the university chapter of Engineers Without Borders, Smithmyer and Varin had steeled themselves for tough conditions in one of the world’s poorest countries, whose 10-year civil war was chronicled in the movie “Blood Diamond.”
“We had culture shock,” Varin says, recalling the stench of open-ditch sewers. “But we found a lot more infrastructure than I thought there would be.”
They met hopeful, helpful people who are rebuilding, he says. In fact, a reservoir and water treatment plant were under construction. Once both are finished, the city will have enough clean water, but it won’t have a distribution system.
“The scope of our project changed from water sanitation to quantity to distribution,” Smithmyer says.
The new challenge: how to get water from a new reservoir pipeline to the school, medical center and public water taps. Smithmyer and Varin visited sites, took measurements, listened to community leaders and worked with local technicians to find out what could work.
Varin, a senior, expected to return home and plunge into his final semester, but that’s not what happened.
“As soon as we landed at Dulles airport, I wanted to go back.” Although he had planned to work for a civil engineering firm in the U.S. after graduation, he had seen firsthand how environmental engineering could help in developing countries, where waterborne diseases claim many lives.
“This trip completely changed my career path. I want to work with a nonprofit group on international environmental issues.”
Smithmyer, a junior, also found herself reassessing.
“I don’t have a plan anymore,” she says, adding that she is considering the Peace Corps or graduate school. “I have a year to figure it out.”
Building Connections, Raising Money
Other NC State students from the EWB chapter will finish the project, using the results from the team’s assessment work. The chapter is working on a companion renewable energy project to supply lighting and power for computers to the school in Sierra Leone, along with a water project in Bolivia.
Varin, who attended the recent EWB conference in Louisville, Ky., says the chapter is reaching out to a professional engineering chapter in Research Triangle Park for advice and opportunities for collaboration. And, they’re raising money for materials.
Though they won’t personally see the completion of the Sierra Leone project, Smithmyer and Varin are confident it will succeed, thanks to the inspiring people they met in Allentown.
“It’s not ‘our’ project,” Smithmyer says. “It’s a community project. We’re helping them with their project. The people are so competent and so enthusiastic.”