Mission Accomplished!

UM Engineers Without Borders team finishes school construction project in Togo

The Ole Miss Engineers Without Borders team visited Togo, West Africa over winter intersession to build a school for the children of the Hedome village. Photo courtesy Sudu Upadhyay.

OXFORD, Miss. – January denotes the beginning of the year, but for a team of University of Mississippi students and faculty, the month marked the end of a service project that was years in the making.

Between August 2012 and January 2014, the UM Engineers Without Borders student chapter successfully designed and built a school for the Hedome Village in the West African nation of Togo. Three faculty members representing the School of Engineering and the Meek School of Journalism and New Media accompanied 12 students to the impoverished nation. During two separate two-week trips late last summer and early last month, team members modified the designs they made to accommodate unforeseen complications of inadequate equipment and building materials.

“This has truly been a life-changing service experience for many,” said Marni Kendricks, assistant dean of engineering and EWB co-faculty adviser. “I could not possibly be more proud of our students!”

Kendricks and Cristiane Surbeck, associate professor of civil engineering and EWB co-adviser, led engineering students David Austin of McComb, Ontario Berry of Mendenhall, Maddie Costelli of Gulfport, Courtney Cunningham of Chicago, Jamie Douglas of Flowood, Vera Gardner of Memphis, Tenn., Chinelo Ibekwe of Lagos, Nigeria, Diana Kaphanzhi of Oxford, David Pryor of West Point, Tara Shumate of Clinton, Haley Sims of Ridgeland and Joey White of Springfield, Ill.Nancy Dupont, associate professor of journalism, supervised student Suhu Upadhyay of Oxford in filming the activities for a documentary, which will air later on Mississippi Public Broadcasting.

Both engineering school Dean Alex Cheng and journalism Dean Will Norton fostered the collaborative element of the service project that influenced lives at home and abroad.

“During Wintersession, we completed Phase II of the work,” Kendricks said. “I led a team of six engineering students to Togo starting Jan. 1 to begin construction. The second team of five more engineering students arrived Jan. 9.”

Both teams worked together a few days before the first team returned home Jan. 14. The second team completed the project Jan. 18. Dupont and Upadhyay captured video and photography of the work.

Upon their return to campus, the combined teams met with Chancellor Dan Jones, who served as a medical missionary in South Korea for seven years. The students shared stories of their experiences and presented Jones with a framed photograph of the school building and a gift from the Togolese people.

“The EWB service project fits my vision of what the university should be doing in so many ways,” Jones said. “Whether the community is in Lafayette County or Togo, so much needs to and can be done for those less fortunate. I am hopeful their example inspires others on campus to make a difference.”

During the trips to the village, students and faculty members had to contend with many obstacles, including a lack of sanitation, limited electricity, cultural differences, and communicating in English, French and Ewe (the Togolese dialect). Many times, they had to be creative while using local materials.

“When the skilled carpenters in the village saw how our design called for the use of 2x6s for the roof of the school, they felt strongly it was a waste of lumber and wanted to rip them into 2x3s by hand sawing,” Austin said. “We had to have our professional mentor explain why it was necessary for the sustainability of the structure.”

Gardner literally became a weight for the team. The freshman from Memphis was used on one side of a crude scale to measure the mass of lumber for determining the wood’s density.

“I never expected to be used as a measuring tool, but through my experience, I learned anything can be used to solve any problem,” she said. “You just have to be willing and creative.”

Both Shumate and Berry said they found the opportunity to serve others gratifying.

“I have been afforded so many advantages here that I just wanted to give back to another side of the world in a practical manner,” Shumate said. “Seeing the effects of what we did immediately was extremely rewarding for me.”

A senior defensive back for the Ole Miss Rebels football team, Berry said his athletic disciplines came in handy in Africa.

“Having to rise early, work hard and in hot weather was not unusual for me as an athlete,” he said. “What I did learn was that I could bond with people from another country and that I can be very patient, especially when overcoming obstacles.”

With the school construction behind the group, the EWB members are already pondering their next project in Togo, Kendricks said. Additional classrooms, a water treatment system, a running water system and a fishery are among the possibilities being considered.

“A villager told us that even though Africa has more independent nations than any other continent in the world, the majority of those nations are yet dependent upon other countries,” Dupont said. “By advancing education, those nations gain their freedom. I’m so proud to know the Ole Miss chapter of EWB is an agent of change in Africa.”

The Ole Miss chapter of EWB-USA is accepting membership for the fall semester. Many incoming freshmen and current students have expressed an interest in joining, Kendricks said.

The group meets regularly to discuss upcoming challenges, including fundraising and project establishment. Delegates have attended EWB-USA Southeast Regional workshops in October and the international conferences over spring break.

While engineering students make up the majority of the chapter’s membership, students from other fields of study are welcome.

EWB-USA is a nonprofit humanitarian organization established to partner with developing communities worldwide to improve quality of life. The partnerships involve implementing sustainable engineering projects while involving and training internationally responsible engineers and engineering students.

In addition to the travel team members mentioned previously who hold officer positions in the Ole Miss chapter, Jim Mosier, a senior mechanical engineering major from Oxford, is chapter president. Michael Costelli, P.E., of Gulfport; is the professional mentor of the structural project.

For more information about Engineers Without Borders-USA, visit http://www./ewb-usa.org/.

By Edwin Smith