As submitted by author Sarah McConnell:

It was 8:00 am on Monday, August 15, 2016, and I was heading to my first college course. It was an economics course we had to take as part of our engineering general education program. I was nervous and excited. Not for this course specifically, but in general to have the privilege to be a student at North Carolina State University (NCSU). I had just returned from a year abroad in Chile earlier that summer and was so motivated to learn, meet new people, and have “the best four{ish} years of my life.” I hit the ground running and felt good about my classes, so decided to branch out into extracurriculars. I had heard about Engineers Without Borders, knew we had an NCSU chapter and signed up for the interest meeting. Little did I know the impact this club would have on my collegiate experience.

As a first-year, I joined the fundraising team for our NCSU-EWB chapter ready to make an impact. The chapter was adding a new project in Guatemala that semester and I thought my Spanish skills could be of use on the team, so I applied. Later, I became part of the NCSU-EWB Guatemala Water Systems (GWS) team! We were traveling to Guatemala over spring break for our first assessment trip of a community called Caserio Panhux. I applied for the travel team and sooner than later we were flying to Guatemala. Have you ever just jumped into something without a full understanding of its impact? We assessed three potential problems within Caserio Panhux: widening their main road, constructing a community building, and helping provide access to clean water. Listening to the community needs, we determined a water project was the most urgent matter. I got to speak Spanish, eat traditional Guatemalan food, play soccer with our new friends, and felt like I was living in a dream (the malaria pills get to you!).

NSCU Engineers Without Borders - Guatemala Water Systems
NSCU Engineers Without Borders – Guatemala Water Systems


Returning was hard. We had a late flight arriving at 4 am the same morning I had to go to my 8:30 am economics course. But the experience was something I wouldn’t change for the world. I have reflected on this trip many times and even after four years, I see new ways GWS has changed my life and given me perspective. Most notably was the impact it had on my Spanish course that semester. I was able to speak about my time in Chile and now Guatemala. When we discussed different ways to speak Spanish, I had personal experiences and felt so engaged and connected to my Spanish minor coursework.

I knew there was more to learn from this team so put it on the forefront, making it a goal to complete the project by the time I graduated. The original project entailed constructing 54 rainwater harvesting systems (RHS) to be placed on individual houses in the community. Community members were traveling far distances to collect water from contaminated streams which made them sick. Rainwater is a lot cleaner solution and constructing a system at each house would significantly reduce the amount of time community members had to spend in the collection of water giving them more time for education or work. Throughout the design phase for the RHS, we repeatedly went through the engineering design cycle which I had learned in my introduction to engineering course. We also used modeling tools like Fusion 360 to model designs, which I had learned about through my major coursework. Everything was so applicable!

Guatemala_NCSU students_planning
NSCU students working in Guatemala

In the meantime, I was applying to be a project lead for our GWS team. I also started volunteering with VOLAR, a Spanish service club. I figured since I could use my skills in another country, I should also try to use them in my local community, Raleigh, NC.

It is now four years since joining Engineers Without Borders, and I have traveled on one assessment and three implementation trips. Our team has constructed 50 total systems (first trip constructing 14, second constructing 20, and third constructing 16). We are planning to complete the final implementation this May 2020 and will potentially extend the project depending on community need and funding.

Overall advice I always give first-year students is: once you have found a passion, jump in. If you have the privilege to go to university in the United States, that is a HUGE deal! There are so many opportunities on campuses and ways to give back to your community and follow your passions, it is overwhelming. Pick one or two and GO!! You will be amazing at what you can accomplish in four{ish} years.

Sarah McConnell is Paul’s niece and goddaughter. Sarah is currently completing her bachelor’s degree at North Carolina State University, studying Industrial Systems Engineering and Spanish. She is an avid traveler, yogi, and soccer lover. 

Click here to read another post from Sarah McConnell, written during her semester abroad in Hong Kong!