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‘A Service Project that Teaches’

FullTextImage/img/@altVMI cadets interact with villagers in Pampoyo, Bolivia, at the close of the work day. -- Photo courtesy of Henry Meredith '15.

Engineers without Borders Chapter Completes Water Project in Bolivia

More than a dozen VMI cadets experienced life on another continent when they traveled to Bolivia this summer on a trip sponsored by the Institute’s chapter of Engineers Without Borders. Members of this national organization devoted to community development design and create sustainable engineering projects, often in third-world countries.

Journeying to the landlocked and extremely mountainous South American country were 13 cadets and two alumni, Brad Sweeney ’13 and Bolivian-born Nohelia Martin ’08, along with two students from neighboring Washington and Lee University. The group was led by Maj. Tim Moore ’97, assistant professor of civil engineering.

Moore, who began VMI’s chapter of EWB during the 2010-11 school year, has now taken three groups of cadets to Bolivia – one each every summer since 2011. The group has also worked in Haiti. For 2014, Moore has ambitious plans for five trips – two within the United States over spring furlough, two to Bolivia and one to the east African nation of Uganda.

The Bolivia-bound cadets, representing a wide variety of majors and disciplines, left at the end of May and returned in mid-June. With three weeks in the country, there was plenty of time for both work and sightseeing – and some of the sights seen served as stark reminders that life in a developing country can be brutally hard.

Upon arrival in the capital city of La Paz, the VMI group traveled six to eight hours by bus to reach the city of Potosi, which has been a silver mining center ever since the arrival of the first Spaniards in the 1500s. From Potosi, the travelers continued up into the mountains to the village of Pampoyo, where they were assigned the task of building a water system for livestock. Water in the region is contaminated from heavy metals from mining operations, explained 2nd Class Cadet Henry Meredith ’15, and llamas had been dying as a result.

“The engineering part of it was to build a sedimentation basin,” explained Meredith, an economics major from Norfolk, Va. The engineering, though, had been figured out in advance – what was needed was brute strength and endurance.

Creating the water system, said Meredith and fellow traveler Damian Arnaiz ’15, involved carrying 60 rolls of plastic pipe, each 50 meters (164 feet) in length, up the side of a mountain in air so thin it seemed to be totally without oxygen.

“This was the highest anyone had been in their lives, probably,” said Meredith. “There is no oxygen, essentially. You walk about 15 meters up and you want to die.”

High in the Andes Mountains, Potosi lies at an elevation of over 13,000 feet. By contrast, Lexington’s elevation is just 1,063 feet.

Meredith, who’d been hospitalized overnight with altitude sickness and food poisoning upon arrival in Potosi, felt the strain acutely. The VMI group could use trucks for some of the hauling, he added, but there were plenty of places the trucks couldn’t go.

Incredibly, the cadets took only five days to complete the water system project, which had been scheduled to take three weeks. Moore, a seasoned veteran of in-the-field engineering, attributed that feat to “just the hard grizzled determination of students and VMI cadets.”

He added, “They knew what I wanted them to do and they did it.” Working in teams, with each team assigned a specific task, also helped to speed the job along, Moore noted. ”They handled those tasks beautifully and got done in one-third of the time.”

With their work done, the travelers were left with two entire weeks to sightsee. The group visited an active silver mine, where they saw boys in their early teens working. A guide told them that no maps of the mine exist – all of its twists and turns must be learned by memory.

“I don’t think [mining in Bolivia is] regulated at all,” said Arnaiz, a civil engineering major from Riverside, Calif. “As long as something comes out of there I think they don’t care.”

Some members of the group also took the plunge into the freezing cold waters of Lake Titicaca, the highest navigable lake in the world, while others visited Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest salt flat, which covers an area of more than 4,000 square miles. “It’s a flat surface, all white, and it looks like snow,” reported Meredith. “That was amazing.”

Arnaiz said that the combination of a service project and sightseeing lent a unique perspective to his experience. “We ran into people who were staying in hotels and things,” said Arnaiz. “I felt like this was a more organic experience in terms of seeing the culture. … It wasn’t easy working. You have to want to do it. While you’re working, you’re exhausted.”

Both Arnaiz and Meredith said that this trip had made clearer to them that service to others will be a major component of their lives after VMI. Arnaiz plans to commission in the Army Reserves, and while Meredith is still undecided about his post-graduation plans, he’s now thinking about the Peace Corps.

“VMI definitely puts [service] into your mind,” said Meredith. “People at VMI really value service, whether it’s the military or something like the Peace Corps.”

A service project that teaches, Moore noted, may be the best lesson of all. “Applied learning is a very effective way of teaching,” he said.

–Mary Price

-VMI-