Engineers Without Borders local chapter travels to Togo

University of Mississippi engineering students Alan Barger (left) and Jimmy Jackson designed and built a manual pump as a possible tool to use in the field in Togo. They tested the pump in Oxford to be sure their design can raise water 90 feet, which is the depth of water in open wells in the area of Togo where the Engineers Without Borders-Ole Miss group anticipates working.

University of Mississippi students and faculty members are journeying to a remote village in southeast Togo to determine how they can best help to improve the quality of life for natives there.

The Ole Miss chapter of Engineers Without Borders received approval from EWB-USA to make an official assessment trip to the African country Aug. 6-13. Students include Alan Barger of Greenwood, a civil engineering senior and chapter president; Jimmy Jackson of Greenville, a civil engineering graduate student; Maddie Costelli of Gulfport, a civil engineering junior; Elsie Okoye of Nigeria, a geological engineering senior; and Norman Seawright of Greenville, Ind., a journalism senior.

Accompanying the team are Cristiane Surbeck, assistant professor of civil engineering and EWB mentor; Nancy Dupont, associate professor of journalism; and Marni Kendricks, civil engineering instructor and EWB faculty adviser.

“The purpose of this trip is to conduct an official community needs assessment in accordance with the EWB-USA model of exploration and evaluation,” Kendricks said. “We hope to be able to accomplish a few significant things, i.e.,  determine what the villagers think are their greatest needs that can be solved by EWB, forge acceptable partnership arrangements with the village leaders and create a proposed 5-10 year plan for phased-in infrastructure improvements for the village.”

Possible community projects include greenhouse crops, treated potable water, fish and poultry management systems, irrigation systems, wastewater systems, solid-waste systems and other improvements over time, Kendricks said.

“If we receive EWB-USA approval for the first project, we hope to begin the implementation phase in August 2013 with another travel team of EWB-Ole Miss,” she added.

University of Mississippi engineering students Alan Barger (left) and Jimmy Jackson experiment with sand filtration and solar UV radiation to treat water from Oxford's Lake Patsy. They are trying to inactivate the total coliform bacteria content naturally found in pond water. The tests are in preparation of their visit to Togo as part of an Engineers Without Borders-Ole Miss project.

This month’s trip is the latest development in a laborious process that began with the formation of an EWB-Ole Miss chapter three years ago. Since then, members had to zero in on the part of the world in which students would invest time and energy, submit multiple requests for travel approval to EWB-USA, and coordinate and communicate with their nongovernmental organization contact in Togo, Rev. Kokou Loko.

Surbeck said she was honored to have been asked by members to be the EWB students’ professional mentor.

“I have wanted to work on a project like this for a long time, and I can’t think of a better way to do it than with students,” Surbeck said. “I hope that people’s lives in the villages that we visit in Togo change positively with our visit. For myself and the students, I hope we gain a new life perspective while applying practical and creative engineering skills.”

EWB-UM members also had to raise appropriate funds for this work, build test systems, select members of the travel team and arrange international travel details including a host of unusual vaccinations for everyone. Finally, they had to prepare the daily agenda of all that must be accomplished while team members have boots on the ground in the primitive rural village where natives speak the tribal language.

“The amount of student-led work that has been done thus far to move this project along, to help a poverty-stricken people on the other side of the globe, most of whom our volunteers will never even meet, is absolutely staggering,” Kendricks said. “I could name at least 25 outstanding students who have, over the past three years, truly made this project come to life.”

Their activities have included such fundraisers as a pancake breakfast, 5K race and picnic lunch. After filing pages upon pages of EWB applications and doing research on and discussing in-country topics, group members conducted water, pump and construction tests and discussions with engineering professionals, and they are in regular communications with Loko, Kendricks said.

“They’ve taken vaccinations, made presentations to Rotary clubs, churches and at the ASCE (American Society of Civil Engineers) annual convention, passed first-aid courses (an EWB requirement for travel) and more.  I am honored to know and have the pleasure of being around these kinds of individuals that are sincerely service-minded. They will absolutely make a difference in people’s lives in this project and certainly others. That’s the kind of students who are involved in EWB,” she added.

Okoye said she is proud to be a part of the EWB chapter and this particular project.

“Engineers Without Borders-Ole Miss has worked on this project for about a year and a half, so being a part of the team representing the group in Togo is a real honor,” Okoye said. “I grew up in Nigeria (a neighboring country to Togo), and I hope my background will help our group relate better to the Togolese culture. I also look forward to applying my knowledge of site characterization in Akoumape, Togo.”

Costelli said being the youngest member of the EWB travel team is both an honor and a privilege.

“This is an opportunity that I never thought I would have gotten,” she said. “I am looking forward to forming meaningful relationships and being able to help people that otherwise could not help themselves. I have a high degree [of] interest and am willing to do everything I am capable of to make this trip successful.”

In addition to the members’ own involvement, the Meek School of Journalism and New Media is producing a documentary about this EWB project. Dupont is supervising Seawright in producing what she calls an “extraordinary story in so many ways.”

“Here is a group of very smart engineering students traveling halfway around the world to help people they don’t yet know. All the students know now is that there is a need, and they are responding,” Dupont said. “This trip is the story of a lifetime. We can’t wait to show it to the world.”

Seawright said he anticipates being able to utilize and sharpen his journalism skills.

“This is my first time actually creating a documentary and, compounded with the photo project and blog we have planned, it will be invaluable to work across multiple media platforms,” Seawright said. “I certainly anticipate, from the journalistic standpoint, having to plan, execute and deliver our coverage on the fly. I’ll also be able to learn how the engineers work and what they need to consider while planning ways to help the community [and] while trying to show the community what is being done and why it’s beneficial.”

Staff in UM’s Study Abroad Office coordinated the travel to take students abroad safely as part of an educational experience like nothing they will ever learn in a classroom.

“We are extremely appreciative of Blair McElroy in the Study Abroad Office, who has guided us through this difficult travel process,” Kendricks said.

“In a service-learning program like community infrastructure and health improvements in Togo, our students will be giving to a new community the knowledge they have gained here at UM, and upon return, the knowledge they have acquired abroad will help diversify the university community,” McElroy said. “What an awesome thing to do while a student here at Ole Miss!”

Dubbed the “Blueprint Brigade” by Time Magazine, EWB-USA grew from little more than a handful of members in 2002 to more than 12,000 today. EWB-USA has 350-plus projects in more than 45 developing countries around the world, involving water, renewable energy and sanitation. These projects are completed in partnership with local communities and nongovernmental organizations.

EWB-USA’s strength comes from its more than 250 dedicated chapters, including university chapters on 180 campuses in the United States. Because of its strong university presence, EWB-USA is the catalyst for a new movement to educate the next generation of socially conscious engineers deeply aware of the needs of the rest of the world.

EWB-USA has touched the lives of more than a million people and continually strives to increase this number.

For more information about Engineers Without Borders-USA, visit