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Using the Degree for Good: Civil Engineering & Philanthropy

Written by: Emily Reeve

Engineering is a family business for senior Emily Reeve – quite literally. Her mother and father studied engineering and started their own business, Composite Advantage. But Reeve’s motivating factor for following in the footsteps of her parents is being able to use her degree for good.

This summer, I spent eight weeks in a rural community called Las Pencas in the mountains of Nicaragua as a part of a student organization at Notre Dame called NDSEED. NDSEED, which stands for Notre Dame Students Empowering through Engineering Development, collaborates with a non-profit called Bridges to Prosperity every year to design and fund a pedestrian footbridge for an isolated community. I was a part of the 2017 team and helped build NDSEED’s ninth bridge.

There were moments this summer when I had to just stop and ask myself, “How did I get here?” Specifically, we arrived in Managua, Nicaragua, in May. We hopped on the back of a flatbed semi-truck with our luggage, all of our construction equipment, an industrial sized concrete mixer, and enough food and water to last us the first couple days. We drove four hours through the mountains to the community of Abra Vieja, and when we arrived, a group of nearly twenty Nicaraguan men met us. They carried all of our belongings half a mile through a cow pasture, down a hill, over cliffs, and across a narrow ladder that was the only form of passage across a ravine. Then it was another half mile to the town of Las Pencas. All the while, it was pouring rain.

But what I really mean is, “How did I get to be living my dream of working on bridges in developing countries at only 21 years old?” To answer that question, we have to go back to when I was a junior in high school, just starting to think about college.

I had no idea what I wanted to study. I was good at math and science, so everyone told me I should be an engineer. Despite having two parents who are both engineers, I really had no idea what they did. I asked my dad to describe the different disciplines to me. I arbitrarily decided, “I’m going to be a civil engineer,” because it seemed like the discipline with the most opportunity to help people. My dream was to eventually travel internationally and use engineering to improve infrastructure in developing countries. Little did I know where I would be heading in the coming years.

Finding NDSEED

Looking at colleges, it was important to me to attend a school with a strong Catholic tradition, as well as a strong engineering school. This brought me to Notre Dame on a visit during February of my senior year. I remember stopping at a booth to talk to a student about NDSEED, and that evening my host, a freshman civil engineering student, told me about the program. She eventually became one of my closest friends and the Project Manager for my NDSEED team. I fell in love with their mission, and it was a major factor in my decision to attend Notre Dame.

During my sophomore year as a non-traveler Volunteer Course Assistant on NDSEED, I grew so much; I learned what it means to be a part of a team and I came to understand the many complexities involved with a large construction project. My responsibilities included social media outreach, updating the manual that documented all parts of the organization, and the development of construction workshops which allowed people to get hands-on experience of the most critical phases of bridge construction prior to traveling to Nicaragua.

During my junior year with NDSEED, then being a traveling member, my role on the team was construction manager. I continued to develop and run the construction workshops during the academic year. In January, we traveled to Nicaragua for a week to meet with the community of Las Pencas and take a topographical survey of the bridge site. Back at school, I made sure we had all the required equipment to construct our project, a 120-meter pedestrian footbridge across a ravine – the longest bridge NDSEED has ever worked on.

The Summer in Nicaragua

A normal day in Nicaragua looked something like this: we woke up at 5:45 a.m. (if the roosters didn’t wake us up earlier) and went to work at 7:00 a.m. We usually took a break to eat mangos or coconuts that were brought by community members, then worked until lunch. After that, we worked again from 1:30-4:00 p.m. In our downtime, we bathed in the river and played soccer or cards with the community. To end the day, we had a team meeting with our foreman to make construction plans.

All eight team members stayed in an open-air, two room school in Las Pencas. We slept on cots with mosquito nets and went through countless bottles of Raid as we tried to convince the multitude of bugs to vacate their residence there. It rained multiple times each week, so Crocs became the footwear of choice. We did not have plumbing or electricity, so we had huge quantities of water for drinking and cooking delivered to us every two weeks, and once a week we had to travel to the nearest city, two hours away, to get food for the week.

Everyone on the team had a different role, and I served as the Construction Manager. I learned that my job was to document every part of the construction, from the number of people working on each task to the length of time and amount of materials required for each task. I predicted the schedule for construction, then evaluated our progress.The majority of our time was spent digging holes, moving rocks, and mixing concrete, but we saw almost every aspect of the bridge construction. 

During the rainy season, their only mode of passage was over a fragile ladder constructed of logs and sticks that laid across the narrowest part of the ravine. When we arrived, the communities had already agreed on a work rotation schedule. Some of them traveled over an hour by horse to be there. Their commitment to the cause was unbelievable.

Unfortunately, due to the sheer size of the project, we were not able to see the bridge completed before we left. However, we were able to finish the towers and place the cables across the river. Once complete, the bridge will help more than six communities, serving as a link to the nearest access road. Approximately 300 people will be connected to large cities, schools, hospitals, and markets. 

The most important thing I learned this summer was not “how to be a construction manager.” Rather, it was learning the importance of infrastructure. I have always felt passionate about developing infrastructure. However, there is a major difference between saying "a bridge is important because it provides safe, quick access to healthcare," and the experience of you yourself being very ill in an isolated community. I had the unfortunate experience of suffering from dehydration and had to be taken from Las Pencas to the nearest hospital – which is in Managua. I had to walk a mile, travel over an unsafe bridge crossing, and then drive three hours to the capital in order to be treated at a decent healthcare facility. I recovered smoothly and was able to return to the community to continue working for the summer, but my perspective changed completely.

We lived alongside the community, in solidarity with them, and the struggles they faced every day, we faced alongside them. This brings me to the second most important thing I learned this summer: the power of empowerment – the ideology which is NDSEED’s namesake. We worked on the same tasks as the community members, for the same hours, and it allowed us to build authentic relationships with them as we worked. It was an incredibly humbling experience to live the way they lived and to see the amount of joy with which they lived each day. They invited us to come to church with them, to travel to nearby communities, and to play soccer with them. They asked us to teach them English and they helped us improve our Spanish, and in these ways, we bridged the gaps between our cultures. All throughout the summer, we tried to encourage them through words and example that they have the power, brick by brick and rock by rock, to transform the situation in which they live.

Moving Forward

 My dream is to continue being able to work on developing infrastructure, both internationally and domestically, especially in the wake of natural disasters. The fact that I was able to achieve this dream as an undergraduate gives me hope that I will be able to see this dream realized again in the future – maybe even as a career. I do not know where I am headed yet, but I know my path will always be shaped by the summer I spent building a bridge in Nicaragua.

If you would like to learn more about the mission of NDSEED or Bridges to Prosperity, please see the following links:
https://ndseed.nd.edu
https://www.bridgestoprosperity.org/