Engineering Service Learning at Montaña de Luz

Sunrise at MdL

My STEP signature project was an engineering service-learning trip over spring break 2018 to Montaña de Luz, Honduras. MdL is an orphanage for children with HIV/AIDS. Before the trip, our class, our class split up into four engineering teams. I was on the water team, and our project was to install a water filter underneath the kitchen sink at the orphanage, and to chlorine shock the three water tanks. We also had an educational component of our project, where we let the kids at the orphanage make their own water filters out of 2-liter soda bottles. They would pour dirt and water into the top and watch the “clean” water come out of the bottom (don’t worry, they didn’t drink it!).

This trip absolutely changed my life. Before the trip, I was definitely aware of how people in third world countries lived, but I definitely wasn’t prepared to experience it myself. Before this trip, I was interested in applying for the Peace Corps after graduation, but I didn’t want to commit to that until I had traveled outside of the U.S and get a feel for what I was signing up for. I decided that this trip to MdL would be the deciding factor in whether or not I would continue to pursue humanitarian aid services in my career. I had developed an interest in humanitarian engineering (declared it as my minor) a few semesters before the trip, but of course there is a huge difference between talking about serving people to actually doing it. I feared that I would realize on this trip that I actually wasn’t interested in humanitarian aid, just interested in the idea of it. That was not the case. I loved every minute I was in Honduras, and I often dream about going back to MdL. Being able to bring clean, drinkable water to children who already live without so much was such a transformative experience.

Even with the water filter being installed, I think MdL impacted me more than I was able to impact them. The way of life is completely different than the way we live here, and it definitely made me reflect on how I live my life in the U.S. Everything there is centered around family and friends and being kind and welcoming to everyone you meet. You can’t walk down the any street in Honduras without being greeted with “hello, how are you?”. That is definitely not the case in the U.S.  When I walk to class, I purposefully avoid eye contact with anyone, let alone say hello. After coming back from this trip, I started to wonder why we do that. There are so many missed conversations and connections when we choose to stare at our phones before class starts in a lecture hall full of peers. I also realized that I miss so much when I choose to be wrapped up in my trivial problems rather than to sit and listen to everything around me. When I came back, I didn’t completely change all of these things about myself, but I am definitely more mindful about it and I make more of an effort to reach out to people that I come into contact with every day.

There were several events throughout the 10 days at MdL that lead to my personal transformations. The huge cultural differences between Honduras and the United States, in a way, made me feel more human. Everyone interacts with everyone. On Thursday night, one of the Tias (Spanish for aunt, a volunteer at MdL) invited all of us into her home and taught us how to make Baleadas, a traditional Honduran meal. Her daughter, who was about our age, sang three songs that she composed and played guitar, which she taught herself. It was one of the best experiences of the trip. I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a similar instance happening in our culture. The volunteer (Miriam) didn’t know us too well yet she invited us into her home as if we were her children.

Throughout the trip, we all learned that in Honduras (as well as many other countries), time is not of extreme importance as it is in the U.S. Here, we are always working to meet deadlines and maximize our time and efficiency every single day. While that is great for work and projects, its not a great way to live. In Honduras, the most important value to everyone was the relationships you had with your family, friends, and neighbors. Projects and tasks will get done in their own time, but it is more important to reflect and enjoy the people you have around you. I believe this is a better, more pure way to live. This also gave us perspective when working on our projects. We were always pushing for the next thing we needed and often got frustrated when things wouldn’t happen on time, but at the end of the day, our projects were only a small part of our purpose for being there. The connections and memories we made with the kids and volunteers at MdL will outlast all of our projects.

Overall, being surrounded by like-minded people in Honduras was a part of my transformative experience. There aren’t too many people in my major that are interested in Humanitarian work; most of the study abroad trips my peers take are for research or education abroad. Working and living with 13 other people who are interested in doing the same kind of work that I am as a career was very refreshing. We also became close friends on the trip and continue to meet and share and reflect on our experiences in Honduras. Working with people who understand why this kind of work is necessary and beneficial to many people was a key piece in my decision to pursue a volunteer trip through the Peace Corps.

This trip was extremely valuable for my academic and life goals. I used this trip as a deciding factor in whether I wanted to commit 2 years of my life to service in the Peace Corps, and I have chosen to pursue that service after graduation. When I first came to college, I wanted to get an engineering degree and then go to veterinary school. I had no interest or knowledge in humanitarian engineering. Through connections with professors and students who have taken these types of trips before, I became interested in humanitarian engineering and added a minor in it, but I wasn’t sure how I could integrate it into my career goals. I learned about the Peace Corps, and decided that would be a good way to use my engineering skills to help people in developing countries lift themselves out of poverty, but I wasn’t yet ready to commit to two years of service when I hadn’t even left the United States before. After taking this trip, I am sure that I want to pursue a 2 year commitment of service in the Peace Corps, and when I return, I hope to work for humanitarian  organizations like USAID or the United Nations.