New minor at the University of Oklahoma gives skills to students who want to make a difference

Posted on: December 19, 2016

NORMAN — A new minor at the University of Oklahoma offers undergraduate students a chance to broaden their world view in a way that coursework alone cannot do.

The minor gives students the skills and knowledge needed to bring clean water, sanitation and health to underdeveloped regions of the world, said Jim Chamberlain, co-director for education and outreach at OU’s Water Technologies for Emerging Regions (WaTER) Center.

“Students come with a sense that water is a critical issue. Many students have been on mission trips with their church and seen it firsthand,” Chamberlain said. “This helps students to gain extra skills to follow up on this passion they have.”

The students put what they’ve learned into practice during an international trip lasting at least three weeks.

“That’s what changes their lives,” Chamberlain said. “They’ve already learned the theory and the social and cultural context.”

The two-year program consists of 18 credit hours and the trip abroad, where students help residents with projects like building solar water pumps or mechanisms to catch rainwater and filter out bacteria.

“The in-country immersion experiences have had, by far, the most impact on the students,” Chamberlain said. “They are eating their food and playing with their children.”

Summer 2017 projects will be in Cambodia, Uganda and Bolivia.

A new perspective

After spending three weeks in Uganda this summer, Cecilia Herrera, 23, decided she wants to join the Peace Corps following graduation.

An industrial and systems engineering major from Mustang, Herrera said she envisioned a career with a big corporation until she went on the WaTER trip and lived with villagers who don’t have the most basic necessities.

“Do you carry your children on your back to go fetch water?” one woman asked her. That reality made her realize how privileged she is and it changed her perspective.

“After I went abroad I knew this is what I want to do, give a voice to people in developing countries,” Herrera said. “I became passionate about that.”

The professors also inspired her, she said. “They are really role models.”

Andrea Laws, 24, a chemical engineering major from Norman, also went to Uganda.

“This trip was an incredible learning experience, not just in the engineering sense, but in a cultural sense. Many of the people we met were incredibly giving, even when they had relatively little to give,” Laws said.

“The kindness and generosity many of the Ugandans showed me inspires me to do the same.”

Chamberlain said the WaTER minor has attracted about three times as many women as men.

“A lot of women who go into engineering want to make a difference in the world and not just make a paycheck,” he said.

International development

Chamberlain came to the WaTER Center five years ago, in part to help develop the minor in water and sanitation for health and sustainable development. The program is in its second year and has grown to include more than 25 students.

Open to any major, the new minor is housed in the civil engineering and environmental science department. Most students in the program so far have been environmental and civil engineering majors, Chamberlain said.

Students must pay their own way for the trip abroad, which is required. The WaTER Center works with nongovernmental organizations in the countries. In Bolivia that is Tulsa-based Engineers in Action; in Cambodia, it’s a couple who moved there from Oklahoma City; and in Uganda, it’s Sister Rosemary Nyirumbe’s Sewing Hope Foundation.

Students learn best about a culture — and their own resiliency — when placed in uncomfortable situations, Chamberlain said. In Bolivia, two male students were left without a translator when she came down with bronchitis. They learned how to communicate non-verbally, he said.

Chamberlain said the work abroad and the coursework at home prepare students for work in international development with the Peace Corps, U.S. Agency for International Development, State Department, faith-based organizations and service organizations, like Engineers Without Borders.

“Graduate students have been doing this for years, but now undergraduates have the opportunity,” he said.

Law wrote this about her experience:

“I’ve really enjoyed my time learning about water and sanitation for health, and I’d really like to be able to work to make a difference and work to improve the lives of others if I can.

“This experience will definitely prepare me for situations where I need to adjust quickly in order to do the best work, or situations where there is an obvious difference in culture or point of view but a team effort needs to be made to reach a goal.

“I’ll always look back on my time in Uganda as something of immense value to my education and growth as a global citizen.”


This story originally appeared in the Oklahoman and was written by Oklahoman reporter Kathryn McNutt.