Dec. 11, 2013
Caroline Williams is a senior in the College of Engineering from Canton, Mich., majoring in civil engineering with a minor in material science and engineering. Her interests relate to engineer’s role in the area of sustainable community development. She spent this past summer performing undergraduate research in Chennai, India for six weeks followed by a four-week study abroad at Kathmandu University in Nepal through a program, “Engineering for Developing Communities,” organized by the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology.
July 20, 2013 was the day I landed in the capitol of Nepal to take a four-week “Engineering for Developing Communities” course and I had no idea what to expect. I had already spent six weeks in India for an MSU undergraduate research experience prior and was unsure what these last four weeks abroad would bring me.
The class was a diverse group with 10 Israeli students, 10 Nepali students, 13 American students, and one student each from France, Australia and China. This was one of the best parts about the class because I learned an immense amount about Nepali culture as well as Israeli culture from my peers.
The course ultimately focused on the initiative of sustainable community development, which I define as assisting the growth of a community in a holistic way so that the environment, culture and people are all accounted for in the growing process. One of the class professors explained this initiative simply on the first day of class by saying, “It’s not about technology, it is about people,” and thus any development must be initiated from the people within the community, not from outside the community. Often times, outsiders wanting to help a community will make a quick solution by providing a new, fancy technology without input from the community but it has been proven that this will not solve the problem at hand unless the community is involved in the decision making.
While this was technically an engineering class, the emphasis was not on empirical equations and the specifics of sustainable technology but rather about the soft-skills required before an engineering design is initiated. We learned how an engineer wanting to help an unfamiliar community must first begin with as little expectations as possible. The engineer must then become involved in the community by getting to know community members, especially the leaders of the area, and understanding their views of the strengths and challenges within the community. Not until then can suggestions be made for possible solutions with the community members.
The best part of this class was when we had the opportunity to live in a Nepali village for one week and perform a community appraisal. The ultimate goal of the week was to interview as many houses and community leaders as possible to formulate the strengths and challenges of the village and later suggest options that we believed would help the village. This proved to be a difficult task because we were recently taught in the classroom to not make suggestions until we knew the community well however we were only there for one week and did not feel we had adequate knowledge to present suggestions to the community by the end of the week.
We decided to present the greatest potential for growth in the community was an improved agriculture practice and increasing the quality of the secondary school. We found that many families grew mostly the same crops and often they could only grow enough to feed their own family. Transporting these goods was also difficult because the village was at the top of a hill and transporting goods to the city to sell took many hours. The secondary school also faced many challenges with all but one toilet of their toilets filled to capacity, no running water, and a low passing rate of the national standard exam.
The last day in the village was a special day where seemingly everyone in the area came to the health post to watch our presentation that was half in English and half in Nepali. Although we did not receive the amount of feedback for which we wanted to hear, we saw many smiling and thankful faces. Many of the community members wanted to formally thank us for coming and we also heard a poem and a song written by two different people about our week in the village. I was especially touched by the man who wrote the song for us because this was seemingly a quiet man but he had the courage to sing us a beautiful song in Nepali.
Following the presentation, we had the opportunity to hang out with the community members by drinking tea and playing games with the children. For over two hours there were constant thumb-war matches, “light as a feather, stiff as a board” demonstrations, and much dancing among the girls. I was also able to be with my loving host family who did everything they could to make us feel welcome and appreciated, even if it meant an intense game of charades to cross the language barrier. I still daydream about this time and wish I could go back.
Although the community did not have electricity during the day, they most always had electricity at night and they were thankful for that. Although the temporary water system was not always working, they did have plans for a permanent system and they were thankful for that. Although various health concerns relating to contaminated water existed, they had a relatively new health post in the community and they were thankful for that. Although the hill on which they lived on caused transportation challenges, they lived in a beautiful place with wonderful scenery and a view of the Himalayas and they were thankful for that. Although their challenges are formidable, their bright determinism is truly inspiring.
Overall, this experience completely changed my career path. On July 20 I was sure I was going to join the world of academia and become a structural engineering professor. Through this course, I was able to see how my natural passion for helping others has a practical outlet. I now plan to pursue a career relating to sustainable community development and utilize my degree in civil engineering. I hope to receive an internship with a non-governmental organization after I graduate where I can learn more about assisting the growth of communities in need.
I don’t think I’ll ever be able to describe this four week course, especially the one week in the village, in words alone. The amount of love I experienced from the Nepali community was incredible and is what makes Nepal and its people special. I don’t know when, but I know I will go back to Nepal to experience its beauty once again but mostly to revisit with the lovely people and see if I can be of assistance in its path of growth.