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“This Trip Was Different”

Written by Mike Thee
September 13, 2011

When a Professionals Without Borders (PWOB) group headed to Zambia in late June, they had a pretty good sense of what sorts of service projects they would be working on. What they didn’t realize was just how immersed they would become in the culture. 

The group included five faculty and staff: Joyce Allen, registrar; Audrey Hudgins, program coordinator in Matteo Ricci College’s Bachelor of Arts in Humanities for Leadership program; Mileva Huljev, Outdoor Adventure Recreation in University Recreation and SU grad; Byron Lynch, lead maintenance electrician in Facilities and SU alumnus; Steve Szablya, director of maintenance and operations and co-founder of PWOB. Three students also participated—Jordan Maier (senior, electrical engineering and mathematics), Caitlin Padon (sophomore, nursing) and Renee Vandermause (senior, civil and environmental engineering)—as well as former Science and Engineering faculty and SU grad Jeff Dragovich, and former athletics staff and SU grad Kat Cuevas. 

Electrifying Experience

About 2 billion people on the planet are energy-impoverished, but a pilot project led by an SU faculty member is providing hope for those living “off the grid.” 

Last year, Henry Louie, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering, and 25 of his students built a 700-watt wind turbine in SU’s carpentry shop. The idea behind this hands-on learning experience was to design something that could easily be constructed in a developing country. The true test came over the summer when Louie and three students traveled to Zambia to see whether the turbine could be replicated using all local materials. They found that about 90 percent of the components they needed in Zambia and successfully charged a 12-volt battery. 

It’s an encouraging advancement for people living in developing countries. “There is a tremendous demand for electricity in these places,” says Louie. “Cellular phones, lights and other devices are all battery-powered, but there is no way to charge the battery. A local wind turbine could save someone a long walk to the nearest electrified town.” 

The pilot project was one of seven initiatives funded by SU’s Global Grants program. The Endowed Mission Fund, Professionals Without Boundaries and IEEE Power & Energy Society Community Solutions Initiative also provided resources, and Engineers Without Borders lent expertise to the effort.  

So what’s next for Louie and his electrical and computer engineering students? They will refine the wind turbine design as part of a senior design project and are currently raising funds to do another field test in Zambia next summer.

For many participants, this was not their first international service trip—or even their first visit to Zambia. And yet, by all accounts the experience seemed to put the PWOB-ers in touch as never before with the country’s people, way of life and traditions. 

Working closely with Professor Emeritus Bert Otten, S.J., who now resides in Chukuni, Zambia, the group took on a number of service projects. Among others, they completed a medical clinic with materials paid for by the group, assisted Henry Louie, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering, and his students on a wind turbine project and created a collections area for a regional cultural center (see sidebar below). 

It was while working at the cultural center that the SU group met a number of Tonga dancers, who took time to teach them some traditional dances. Some of the PWOB women got pretty good at it, and Hudgins of Matteo Ricci College even developed a knack for a particular call that accompanied the dance.

Well, it just so happened that around this time a number of top ministers in Zambia’s government, including the vice president, were visiting a remote village at which the Tonga dancers were to appear in a festival. When word got out that the SU group had been a quick study with some of the dances, a request was made for them to demonstrate what they had learned to the festival-goers.

And dance they did as the vice president and other dignitaries looked on. Later, each member of the PWOB delegation was interviewed on live television by ZNBC, Zambia’s biggest network. 

 It was an experience that PWOBers won’t soon forget. Huljev of University Recreation says the day was “truly meaningful” and stood out “among the multitude of impactful moments during this project, most of which are ‘extras,’ the things you can’t even plan for that are presented like gifts along the journey.” 

While in Zambia, Hudgins of Matteo Ricci College gave a series of guest lectures on civic engagement to students at Charles Lwanga Teaching College. She recalls asking the class who will help Zambia become a great nation, to which the students enthusiastically answered “We will.” She says “it was inspiring to see and experience their commitment to each other, their community and their careers as future teachers.” 

Hudgins also took the opportunity to research global engagement opportunities for SU students through academic credit-bearing internships. “I learned of so many possibilities, thanks to Father Otten and others. I have difficulty thinking of a major at SU which wouldn’t benefit from an internship and cultural experience there.” 

For Szablya, the trip was a rewarding combination of service and immersion. “The trip was intense,” he says. “I think it gave folks just a much deeper perspective. It’s one thing to be riding the bus and seeing the poverty go by you, but it’s another to be truly immersed in it, to find out what are the day-to-day problems.” 

“I have to say, this trip touched me perhaps as much as my first contact with international culture,” says Allen of the Registrar’s Office. “Much like first love, I found my first encounter with ‘the other’ as a path to seeing our ‘sameness’ in the world to be profound. I have traveled a lot and fairly consistently throughout my adult life, but this trip was different.”