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Building Bridges, Building Hope

Written by: Gonzalo Mallea Cuba

During the last week of winter break, three members of the NDSEED team had the opportunity to come to Bolivia for the project's assessment trip. Christianos Burlotos, this year's project manager, Meg Tucker, our bridge engineer, and Camila Gonzalez Flores, the community engagement lead, came down for a week-long stay. I picked up the team from the headquarters of EIA (Engineers In Action), our in-country partner. Seeing my friends outside of ND was a pleasant and interesting experience. Up to this point in my college career, I have thought of my life at ND and my life back at home in La Paz, Bolivia, as two different realities, two different chapters, with very few connecting points in between them. Being able to bring these two together reminded me of one of the reasons I was interested in NDSEED in the first place: being able to bring a little bit of ND back home with me.

The first day was mostly a rest and acclimation day since the altitude and lack of oxygen can hit those who are not used to it hard. The team was able to meet my family and my friends and experience a bit of what our day to day is like in La Paz. Again, it was interesting to see these two different groups of people from different contexts interacted with one another. I was happy to see that my family was as excited as I was to receive the team and my ND friends were open to embrace our culture and lifestyle. One of Christianos’ favorite experiences was to grill with my dad on Saturday afternoon. Despite the language barrier, both were able to share a good time and conversation in Spanglish (and of course some great food as well).

During our days in La Paz, I took the team to visit the city. I was very happy to notice they were really enjoying their time there, from the commute in the cable car to strolling through the Old Town in search of a good place to try some local cuisine. Walking down these familiar streets with new friends by my side aroused a sense of wonder inside me that had been asleep for a while. I rediscovered my city with them, recalled memories and stories and forged new ones with new people by my side.

Sunday came and with it the big day we were expecting, the technical and cultural assessments. Villa Florida is located nine hours north-west of La Paz in the Northern Interandean Valleys, the interface between the Andes and the rainforest. The team traveled with Ricardo, an engineer in EIA, and stayed the first night in Charazani, a town just two hours away from the community. On Monday, the team went to Villa Florida for the first time. Five families live in the community, making a total of about 20 people. To cross the river, the community members use a maroma, a cage suspended by a cable that crosses the river by using a pulley system. Needless to say, this is very unsafe; with three deaths reported in the last five years.

Upon arriving, the team found out that due to issues with the coca crops, the community had not organized a bridge committee nor dug the test pits we were already expecting to be ready. Thankfully, Ricardo, who has experience working with communities, stood his ground and persuaded the community to honor their commitment to NDSEED and to the bridge project. The members swiftly started working and by afternoon the site was clear and ready to be surveyed. After some inspection, the team realized the chosen site was not feasible and decided to move it downstream. The new site, however, would have to pass through two community member’s fields. After a long discussion with the team and the rest of the community, both landowners agreed to cede part of their fields for the bridge’s construction, even if it meant giving up part of their coca crops and having to cut some orange and avocado trees. Despite these setbacks, the community kept showing us how committed they are to the bridge, how much they really want it and all the sacrifices they are willing to make for it to be built.

This willingness to work and make the bridge a reality was not only limited to the community and its members. Back in La Paz, we met with two of our most important partners for this upcoming summer and the ones to follow -ND Club Bolivia and the Universidad Católica Boliviana (UCB). ND alumni in Bolivia are eager to help with the project in any way they can; whether it is by donating, organizing fundraisers, referring us to suppliers and even serving as bridge corps members on site this summer. UCB students are eager to participate in our project and discussions were made to start an organization and help us by solving community issues should these arise while we are not at ND, as well as letting UCB alumni know about the project so they can help us on site over the summer. In time, we hope that UCB will be able to start an organization like NDSEED and further help in our country’s development.

As both an ND student and a Bolivian citizen, I’m thrilled to see the excitement with which our project is received by my fellow citizens. I have always dreamed of making a difference for my country and through NDSEED this dream will become a concrete reality. I feel immensely grateful and blessed to be given the opportunity to work as a force of change for my country through my school. Through our projects, we are not only giving some underdeveloped community a bridge but we are empowering and encouraging these communities so that in the future they will be able to carry out these sorts of projects by themselves. Being able to form part of this development process made more tangible my belief in giving back through engineering, giving back through our actions and our talents.

To further illustrate this last point, I would like to share a defining moment of the assessment trip. While the men were clearing the forest and digging the test pits, Camila and Don Pascual, the community leader, sat by the maroma to talk about the bridge and the community. At one point, Don Pascual said that upon finishing the construction, he would like to have a plaque with the NDSEED members name on it. Camila responded it would not be necessary; the bridge is going to be for the community, built by the community and that we are only here to help. Don Pascual insisted on having the plaque so that one day he will be able to show it to his grandchildren and tell them about the students that came to build a bridge when no one else would and instill in them the power and impact an education can have in someone’s life. This small moment encompasses what NDSEED represents: students empowering through engineering development. NDSEED is not just about bridges. If that were the case, we would just raise money during the school year and give it to a company so they can build the bridge. NDSEED is about going into a community to work there, live there, become part of it. NDSEED is about these little moments, these conversations by the riverside, in which we empower each other to achieve the change we want to see in this world. NDSEED is not just about building bridges, it is about building hope.

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