NORMAN — More than a dozen University of Oklahoma College of Engineering students and professors are giving up their Thanksgiving break to help build water systems in El Salvador.
The students are part of the engineering outreach group Sooners Without Borders, which partners with disadvantaged communities to build economically sustainable engineering projects. The group is working through EcoViva as part of their Community Empowerment Tour.
“Sooners Without Borders help develop internationally responsible engineering students through cultural and educational opportunities like El Salvador,” said Jim Chamberlain, OU environmental engineering professor and Sooners without Borders faculty adviser. “These experiences align with President Boren’s vision of advancing a global perspective in all aspects of OU education.”
Two weeks before the trip, Chamberlain prepares the students with the usual safety precautions.
“Don’t drink the water or eat raw vegetables, bring toilet paper and ear plugs,” Chamberlain said. “It gets very noisy at 5 a.m., when the farmers and the animals start the day.”
Chamberlain also prepares students for life-changing experiences. He cautions the team that even after hundreds of hours of preparation, their plans may be “thrown out the window” when they arrive, due to weather or logistical issues.
“Be flexible, enjoy the experience and be open to the social and cultural exchanges,” Chamberlain said.
The group will stay with host families in Ciudad Romero, where they will work and be immersed in their way of living. Students will eat with them, stay in their beds or hammocks, use their outdoor latrines and take bucket showers from the well.
The village was founded in 1991 by approximately 300 families of former refugees from the Salvadoran highlands returning after 10 years of exile in the Panama jungles.
The farming community is working with groups like Sooners Without Borders to build an infrastructure compatible with the region’s climate and topography.
The students will work on two water projects. The tidal zone study is to locate wells and analyze water quality to provide a more reliable and long-term source of clean drinking water.
The second project is a solar irrigation pump design and installation to provide an eco-friendly solution for crop irrigation during the dry season.
For all but one of the students, this will be their first international eco-engineering trip.
This is the second international water trip for civil engineering undergraduate student Rachel Rogers. Her first trip was to the mountainous mining town of Potosi, Bolivia to look at natural methods to reduce toxic minerals in the town’s water source.
“This trip is different in the type of work and the fact that we will stay with the community. It will be more personal,” Rogers said. “I hope to help them find solutions that get them one step closer to a sustainable community.”
When asked about skipping Thanksgiving with their families, none of the students were concerned about missing the American holiday.
“I get to see them my whole life; it is not a big deal,” Rogers quickly replied.
Chamberlain sees the timing of the trip as an opportunity to experience Thanksgiving like the early American settlers. The Ciudad Romero villagers are serving a feast on Thanksgiving Day with local foods, including pupusas and tamales.
“We may not eat the same foods as the early settlers,” Chamberlain said, “but the sentiments of gratitude, community and working together for prosperity will still be present as we share their bounty.”
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