Colloquium: Discourse across the Disciplines

A Week that Changed a Village
In Thailand, UNH students discover an engineering project has unexpected consequences

On a steamy day in the village of Santisuk, Thailand, Erin Stanisewski was singing. She was also digging, wrestling chunks of heavy clay from the unyielding earth. It was hard labor, slow and relentless. A dozen villagers worked with her. When she sang, they smiled and laughed. When she finished, they launched into song in their native Lahu. They couldn't speak to Stanisewski except through an interpreter. But they could dig. And they could sing. Together, they were building a leach field--the first ever in Santisuk.

Stanisewski was one of eight UNH students who spent three furious months last spring raising $10,000 so they could travel to Thailand for a week of hard labor--and life-changing experience. Members of the new UNH chapter of Engineers Without Borders, the students were galvanized when they attended an informational meeting and learned about the three-year-old national organization, which is modeled after Doctors Without Borders and connects students with projects in the developing world.

In the weeks before they left, the students worked out their designs on paper, one for a leach field and another for a drinking water system, and then sent their plans to the national EWB office at the University of Colorado at Boulder for review and approval. All along, they were acutely aware that this project was different from anything they'd tackled before. "The stakes were high," says Mindy Weimar, a civil engineering graduate student who was a moving force behind the project. "People were actually going to drink this water."

The group had no idea how desperately their help was needed until they arrived. "They were picking frogs' eggs out of their drinking water," says Weimar. "It was filled with bacteria and viruses. People were getting sick all the time."

And so during one week in May, while the leach field team dug trenches in Santisuk, Weimar and her crew hiked up a hill behind the village to build a spring box, the first step in a system to provide the residents with something they'd never had before: clean drinking water.

Like everything else about the EWB project, the spring box was constructed of simple, local materials: cement bricks for the walls, a piece of tin for the roof and bamboo "rebar" to hold the roof in place. When it was finished, it kept sunlight off the water below, preventing algae growth. "You've got to adapt and be flexible, using whatever is available," says Weimar. "It was really important for our engineers to gain a perspective on how things are done in most of the world."

About a mile down the hillside, the group installed a roughing filter, a concrete cylinder filled with three sizes of gravel to remove suspended solids from the water passing through. Down by the river, women sifted sand. Working in an assembly line, they rinsed, stirred and sifted, repeating the process about 10 times for each batch of sand. They worked their way through 150 pounds until only the finest, cleanest grains remained, the sand that would be used in the final stage of the water treatment process to filter out the bacteria that had been making the children sick.

By the end of the week, the system was finished: the spring box, the roughing filter, the slow-sand filter, the holding tank. The students cheered with the others as fresh water poured forth. "I really gained confidence in my designing skills," says Weimar. "I also learned a lot about believing, about having a dream and going out there and making it happen."

The UNH students learned other things, too. Like how to ride an elephant and how to say "please" and "thank you" in Lahu. With the village children, they played soccer and jumped from the trees into the cool waters of a deep lagoon.

At the end of the week, the people of Santisuk said good-bye to their new friends, waving until the bus full of American students disappeared. Then they went home to their village, where life would never be quite the same again.

The villagers aren't the only ones whose lives have changed. "I am dirty, thirsty, hot, and sore from this work, but I have never felt so fulfilled," Deana Aulisio wrote in her journal. "What an incredible thing to help people with such a simple thing: water." As she begins job hunting here in the United States, Aulisio's goal is clear, crystallized by her Engineers Without Borders experience: "I want my job to have meaning, not just a salary," she says.

Back in Thailand, buried in the earth somewhere among the network of new pipes that carry water in and out of the village of Santisuk, is a map, hand-drawn one day by the UNH students as the villagers watched. On one side of the pipe is a sketch of New Hampshire. On the other is Thailand. The distance between them, it appears, is very, very small. ~

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