Thursday, May 14, 2009

Being involved outside of your world - experiences from Engineers Without Borders

I remember wanting to come to UW so badly when I was in high school. I was going to an environmental engineer, and be involved in Engineers Without Borders (EWB), and that was how I was going to save the world. 

After 3 years into my program, and 3 years being involved in EWB (helping out here in Canada and volunteering for four months in Malawi last summer), I don't really think that I'm going to 'save the world'. I am, however, still heavily involved and very optimistic that what I'm doing is right and will help bring about the change I want to see. I find that environmental engineering satisfies my interest in how things work and how to fix them, and I find that my involvement in EWB satisfies my passion for social change and human development. 

So I'm going to spend this post talking about what EWB does and how to get involved in EWB, as well as tell you about my personal experience with how I have grown through this organization. 

What is EWB?

In Canada
There are university and professional chapters across Canada, all working together to end poverty from home. Whether we are students or graduates working in the real world, EWB is all about getting Canadians involved in international development. We believe that Canada should be a leader in foreign aid issues. Through our members, we learn about development issues, discuss challenges and opportunities, and bring this message to Canadians. We try to keep our government accountable for its actions in foreign aid by trying to make aid better and petitioning the government

We also want all of our members to grow and become great leaders in whatever future endeavours they pursue. We do this through leadership skills training and one-on-one coaching. 

EWB works in four countries in Africa (Ghana, Burkina Faso, Zambia and Malawi) and partners with local organizations. We don't develop our own projects, and we definitely don't build things. There are locally run organizations already set up in the countries we work in, and we just want to help them to reach the goals that they have set for themselves. EWB is a strong believer in African-led solutions to African problems. 

So what kind of work do we do? 
  • We help develop entrepreneurial lesson plans for the Ministry of Food & Africulture in Ghana;
  • We research and help set up monitoring & evaluation systems in water and sanitation organizations (we're not the ones drilling the boreholes and hoping people use them - we want to know if these boreholes are placed in a good location, if people are using & maintaining them, if the organization's hand washing promotions are effective, etc.)
  • We help district assemblies (similar to a regional level in Canada) to record, maintain, and improve their rural infrastructure systems to encourage community led development
These are just some of the examples of our work...check this out for more examples of projects. There are long term placements (a year or more, intended for graduates) and short term placements (4 months, intended for chapter members). 

How to get involved

Join a chapter (preferably the UW chapter, but I am clearly biased here). There are so many different roles to get involved in! Planning events, running education sessions, trying to get engineering curriculum to include more development issues, fundraising for our overseas volunteers, being a Junior Fellow (4-month placement overseas), being involved in media relations, just being a general volunteer, and so many more. 

What I've learned from EWB

This could be a very long list...and this post is long enough so I'll try and keep this short! 
  • how to lead a meeting
  • how to be a good mentor for people
  • to think critically about development work (what is good, what is bad, how can we be doing better?)
  • how to get money from companies, the university, my family, etc.
  • better public speaking skills
  • different methods for creating change - through government or through consumer demand
  • that creating change is really hard, but when we win those small battles (such as getting more fair trade fruit in our local grocery stores) we've got to celebrate
  • an appreciation of the complexities of development (dealing with people and what they want is so much more complex than drilling a well)
And so much more...and the lessons are different for every person depending on who they are and what they are interested in. 

No matter what you decide to get involved with when you enter university, make sure you get out of it what you want to learn. The things I've learned from EWB are things I never could have gotten through class. So take whatever opportunities you can, and make the most of them. And of course, have fun at the same time. 

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