My STEP project was the Ghana Engineering Service Learning Study Abroad trip through the College of Engineering. I took a class at Ohio State during Fall 2015 working on addressing the clean water problem in Africa and then traveled to Akumadan, Ghana for two weeks during winter break to implement the BioSand Filter that my team and I had prototyped in the United States.
I learned so much about both myself and the world in general during my STEP project. Since high school I had always been adamant that I wanted to work in a third world country, specifically somewhere in Africa, bringing clean water to people. However, I had never actually been to a third world country. Upon stepping off the plane in Accra, I was taken back by the poverty and lack of resources and I immediately began to doubt my dreams of one day moving to a country like Ghana. However, throughout the two weeks I learned that I could live without amenities like sparkling clean bathrooms with toilet paper and reliable wifi. Power outages and water shortages became normal instead of debilitating inconveniences. I found that the people and the place I worked with made the loss of first world amenities seem insignificant. The biggest thing I gained from the trip was a sense of purpose in my life and a direction I want to head in after graduation.
I also learned a lot about the world and the cultural differences in Ghana. I enjoyed learning to speak Twi, the native language in Ghana, and trying new foods. I learned what it was like to be a visitor in someone else’s culture, however the Ghanaian people always made me feel welcome. Initially it was difficult for me to let go of American cultural things like always being on time and having my own personal space. Being immersed in someone else’s culture forced me to reevaluate American culture and accept the differences that I encountered. I learned how to communicate better and how to not be an ugly American. Overall, the experience taught me a lot about myself with respect to my future plans as well as my ability to adapt to a new culture.
Many things that occurred throughout my two week trip shaped and confirmed my aspirations to live and work in Africa in the future. I think the biggest thing that shaped my decision was the relationships I built with the people working for the Offinso North District Assembly. From the moment I arrived in Ghana I felt welcomed and appreciated. Strangers on the streets would say hello and ask how I was doing, a stark contrast to the attitudes of Americans who are always on the move and rarely acknowledge strangers. Throughout the two weeks I worked with some of the most intelligent people I have ever met. People who know how to communicate their ideas and innovate when a material is not available. We brought the idea of a BioSand filter to the people of ONDA, but they took on the project as their own. They made design changes with us when something failed and helped us adapt our design to best fit the needs of the people it was meant to serve. Without those amazing and intelligent people, our project may have not worked or even have been constructed in the first place.
Another key aspect of the experience that helped me shape my future plans was getting to visit a village and meet the people that our BioSand filter was going to help. My team and I spent four months researching BioSand filters and prototyping here in the United States, but it always seemed like an abstract idea that one of the filters would actually be installed in a community. However, on the last work day in Ghana we drove for an hour on a dirt road filled with large potholes and eroding on the edges to reach a distant community suffering from typhoid outbreaks and sickness from E. coli. The moment we pulled into the village all of the people were excited to meet us and welcome us. But it was hard to look beyond the bloated stomachs, open sores, and lack of shoes most of the children experienced. It was incredibly sad to take a 10 minute walk straight down the side of mountain to collect water from a small, contaminated stream filled with bugs and emitting a foul stench. It was surreal to watch small children carry 40 liter jerry cans back up the side of the mountain, knowing that they had to endure this every day, multiple times a day, just to get contaminated water that kept them alive, but made them very sick. Nothing can prepare you for an experience like that, but seeing the conditions the villagers lived in strengthened my resolve to dedicate my life to helping people like that. WE installed our BioSand filter in the community and received many thanks from the people living there. It was a semester long project on my part, but will hopefully serve as an answer to lifelong clean water for them.
Overall, the Engineering Service Learning trip to Ghana was one of the most rewarding and transformative experiences I have had in my short life. I was able to make lasting relationships with engineers across the globe and make an impact on a community struggling to find clean drinking water. Most importantly, the trip taught me as much about myself as it did about working as an engineer in a global setting. I learned how much comfort I could give up and I learned how to be flexible and adapt when things do not always go as planned. The trip was an invaluable experience for me as a future practicing engineer.
The most important transformation that occurred for me was the idea that I finally knew for certain what I want to do for the rest of my life. I finally had the opportunity to actually work in Africa on the clean water crisis and I loved every minute of it. I learned that I was ok with giving up first world amenities in order to make a difference. I also found that even after traveling halfway across the world, a new country could feel like home. I have a renewed purpose in finishing my degree and an even stronger desire to seek out opportunities to work abroad in third world countries. I love Ghana so much that I am considering moving there after graduation to continue working with the people of the Offinso North District Assembly. I could not have asked for a better experience to help me shape my future plans and decide how I would use my degree.