If you ask us, we’re long overdue for some festivity! To “get the party started” we’re kicking off the summer celebrating the power of bridges.
In 2019, 136 students and their mentors built 8 new pedestrian bridges – 5 in Bolivia and 3 in eSwatini. These “spans of hope” now provide over 3,000 people with safe, year-round access to healthcare, education, and markets.
The work of connecting communities continues and you’re invited to be a part of it.
Throughout the month of June we’ll be sharing the stories behind the EIA Bridge Program and the dedicated people who bring it to life. Add in a little music, some STEM, and bit of inspiration and its a celebration you won’t want to miss.
It wasn’t until high school that I fully realized the injustice that, despite no doing of my own, I had been born with so many resources and opportunities while so many others around the world had not. The more I learned, the more convinced I became that I had a responsibility to use those resources and opportunities to give back to those less fortunate than me. That led me to major in engineering to learn how to solve problems and help those most in need. After two years of engineering school, though, I was sure I’d made the wrong choice. Rather than becoming a global change-maker, I felt like I had become a dot on a bell curve, pointlessly wasting my life jumping through manufactured academic hoops to get a degree that wouldn’t help anyone but myself. I was clinically depressed and on the verge of dropping out. But that’s when I found out about Bridges to Prosperity (B2P).
B2P’s mission was to end poverty caused by rural isolation by building footbridges over impassable rivers. Finally, a chance to use my skills to help people! I promptly joined the student chapter at my university and built footbridges in Nicaragua during my final two years. Working alongside those communities and seeing how their lives were transformed by the bridges we built together transformed my life as well. It gave me purpose and motivation to finish my degree and become an engineer who could continue that type of work for life. I began to see how the skills I was learning in my classes could be used to improve our bridge designs and school suddenly felt worthwhile. My teammates became my best friends. I had found my calling and my life’s work, and it was bridge building.
After graduating I stayed involved with B2P, first as a member of the Board of Directors and later as the part-time University Program Coordinator. It was immensely fulfilling to guide scores of new students each year through the same learning process that had transformed my life and see it transform their lives as well, especially when their work resulted in more footbridges connecting more communities to life-changing resources and opportunities. When B2P made the difficult decision to end their University Program in order to focus on scaling their more lucrative programs, I knew we had to keep it alive. Backed by the support of dozens of passionate alumni like myself, we made the transition to Engineers in Action in 2018 and haven’t looked back. The EIA bridge builder family has allowed me to not only become the global change-maker I sought to be, but mentor hundreds of new students to do the same each year.
Julie Allen, Educator, Researcher and Executive Director
Our month-long celebration of bridge building has been an inspiration. From the stories of communities forever changed by an EIA bridge to the people who make it happen, we have been on a journey of hope.
More times than I can count, photos of our bridges around the world have prompted the question, “How did they do that?”
Simple answer? Great Engineering and Great Engineers.
Although we don’t know exactly what and where we’ll be building in 20 years, we do know that we will need gifted and passionate engineers to meet the challenges of the future.
To inspire the next generation of EIA builders and leaders, here are 6 of my favorite “bridge” titles for our youngest followers.
A Book of Bridges: Here to There and Me to You
Cheryl Keely and illustrator Celia Krampion introduce readers to bridges of all kinds, in places around the world. Whether they be big bridges or small, this book helps us see that the true purpose of a bridge is to bring people together. Readers ages 5-8.
Tinyville Town Gets to Work!
When a town needs a bridge, everyone gets to work. And like the bridges that EIA builds, this one is the result of a whole town coming together to improve their community. By Abrams Appleseed. Readers ages 3-5.
How Do Bridges Not Fall Down
If you’ve ever been with a kid who can’t cross a bridge without asking , “Why doesn’t it fall down?” this is a must for your reading list. Author and illustrator Jennifer Shand and Srimalie Bassani provide the basics of architecture and engineering through a well-balanced combination of photos, diagrams and engaging text. Readers ages 7-10.
Bridges Are to Cross
A truly global exploration of bridges and how each one, no matter its size or purpose, reflects our culture and values. The design and engineering of each featured bridge is creatively illustrated through a combination of drawing, painting and three-dimensional papercut pictures. Readers ages 4-8 (but this is a beautiful addition to any bridge-lovers collection) By Philemon Struges.
Hands-on projects for learning how bridges are made. Accessible text, color photographs and well-built “lessons” that include key terms and an overview of bridge types. Written by civil engineer Tammy Enz and a part of the series Young Engineers, for readers ages 7-8
When it was completed in 1937, San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge was hailed as an international marvel. Eve Bunting’s fictional account of its construction celebrates the ingenuity and courage of every person who helped raise this majestic icon. The story is supported by the creative illustrations of C.F. Payne, bringing to life the truth that when people come together they can accomplish just about anything. Readers 4-7
All of these titles are available at Amazon. When you order, don’t forget to log in to Amazon Smile and support Engineers in Action with your purchase.
The further you go, the warmer it gets. Descending along a winding, narrow dirt road, only a sheer drop-off separates you from the growing river several hundred feet below as it accompanies you on the journey downward. Soon you’ve passed from freezing mist floating along the barren landscape of the Bolivian altiplano to sweating profusely in the tropical jungle of northern La Paz.
As you go, you pass small mud shacks, humble houses, and an occasional school building. Even amongst this wild, seemingly forgotten land – even here – men and women eke out a living. Yet the gift of this land is also its curse. The people here are not wealthy in many senses of that word, but they are rich in water. It springs forth readily from the ground and majestically spills down from grand waterfalls. It also rages year round in massive rivers that tear the land apart. Evidence of its rampages, gigantic boulders sit strewn along the river gorge as if marbles tossed by giants. And it is as such that this life giving liquid violently forces the people here to settle onto small parcels of land near the road.
It is no wonder the people question what they are doing. Should they pack up and try to make it in the city? How can a family make it here? No matter how defiant, how long can a young man risk his life trying to cross the raging river to his farm on the other side? If they build their house on the other side, how will the children get to school as they grow? And it is as such that many are pushed to abandon their homes to seek opportunity in the already overcrowded city.
Unless of course, a safe crossing could be built across the expanse over the river. If it was only so simple, they would have done it already. They are not afraid to get their hands dirty, but building a bridge is no easy task. Immense amounts of planning, management, and coordination are required. Not to mention the months of back-breaking labor, challenges that demand engineering skill combined with practical ingenuity, and the iron will to make the dream a reality. Yet this challenge they will not face alone.
This is the niche of Engineers in Action. Combining the fortitude of a community with the engineering skill and resources of EIA forges a new future for these communities. Hand-in-hand, and brick-by-brick, a new reality is sweatily built across the span of distinct cultures and geographies while creating safe access from communities to markets, schools, and medical care.
Today an 81-meter pedestrian bridge spans the roaring Camata River, providing year-round safe crossing for all. And it is as such that the community of Siatha kept the youth in the community; that they were able to build new homes on the other side, without fear of risking their lives and investments; that they worked with agronomists to develop coffee cultivation and dared once again to dream of a better future for their families.
It’s one thing to know you want to do something, and entirely another to know how to do it. By my sophomore year of college, I was convinced that access to safe infrastructure was a fundamental right, and that working for global equity meant increasing access and opportunity through essential infrastructure improvements. I knew I wanted to use my engineering degree in the field of international development, but I had no direction. The field seemed impenetrable to me, having grown up not even knowing what international development was, or that you could do it as an engineer. The career center at my university admitted they really didn’t have any resources for engineers in international development. The few veterans in the field that I was able to meet told me I’d probably have to join the Peace Corps – something I didn’t want to do, because they have no opportunities for engineers outside of teaching math or science.
I was part of EIA for three years as a student, and it was the highlight and driving purpose of my college career. Actually, I started out college as a chemical engineer, but switched to civil engineering my freshman year expressly for the purpose of making it into Notre Dame’s EIA student chapter. EIA fit perfectly into place with my desire to work in community-focused international development, even if I didn’t have a name for it at the time. I would’ve considered working post-graduation with EIA, but I figured it wouldn’t be possible, that there wouldn’t be opportunities or that life would take me a different direction. My senior spring, I was still struggling to find a meaningful post-grad opportunity, and was on the verge of accepting a job in transportation engineering that I was less than thrilled with. Then EIA put out a call for Bridge Corps Fellows to work in Bolivia or Eswatini, and I thought, this is it.
There are more and more students in today’s universities looking for opportunities to be globally-minded engineers and work for equitable infrastructure. There are precious few jobs for them, though, and those that exist seem impossible to get for students with little guidance or connections in the field. I’ve learned through my own experience that EIA is not just building bridges, that EIA is not just driving community development (though it does those things exceptionally well), but that it is increasing awareness and creating opportunity for young, globally-minded engineers. That is no small thing in a world facing unprecedented challenges in sustainable and resilient infrastructure in the face of challenges such as rising populations and global warming. To be able to contribute to that mission, to shape the future of this organization, to build my experience and knowledge in this field — goes beyond what I had dared to hope for my early career. I am extremely grateful for the opportunity to grow alongside our world-class team, our committed and talented local staff, and the energetic, dedicated students that make up the heart of our organization.
Truth be told, I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life after I had finished high school. Coming from a place where career guidance was never brought to my attention, I was another brick in the wall. Enrollment in college was considered the gateway to being well off and attaining status by people in my community. Still, it wasn’t until my cousin, who was enrolled at a local engineering college, suggested that I study engineering that an interest awakened in me for the world of engineering. Following my instinct, I enrolled in Civil Engineering and I developed profound interest in what I was learning. Funny enough, even throughout college, I had not developed a clear picture of what I would do after I graduated. Despite this uncertainty, part of me had always dreamt about transforming the world through grassroots community development. Here I was armed with engineering knowledge but unknowing of how to use it, at least not in Eswatini engineering companies, which did not appeal to me in finding meaningful work. I was looking to connect the dots and find a job that appealed to me and my dreams. I tried to ignite my passion and started doing architecture where I was designing residential houses and making ends meet, but still had no sense of fulfillment.
A year later, I found myself working with EIA university students as an interpreter and site liaison volunteer, building a footbridge in Eswatini, an experience that reaffirmed my desire to impact less privileged communities. Not only was the program changing rural lives for the better, it used engineering to do this. That was when I vowed to align myself with EIA and build more bridges. As someone who was looking to broaden his engineering spectrum, EIA presented me with the opportunity to forge relationships, exchange culture, and grow in the field of engineering. I first joined EIA as part of the mason team, acting as a site foreman and liaison with the students and community, while learning about the bridge design. With dedication and hard work, the Eswatini Bridge Program Manager worked with me and saw to it that our in-country partner organization (Micro Projects) took me on board as a Civil Engineering Technical Officer working under the EIA Department. I have now gone through full technical designs and have led the design and construction of the Eswatini empowerment build. This is the very platform that has enabled me today to sustain myself, work with students, and learn to use online organizational platforms. I love building bridges.
The tremendous reaction and continued support from local communities and government is unparalleled, and it has been a pleasure to be caught up in that. Being up close and personal with top brass government officials whenever students are in the country remains a dream to many and has become my reality. There is no doubt that with EIA’s presence in the country, more lives will be impacted, and one can only hope that more frontiers will be reached for the betterment of the world.
How does your water use measure up against the struggling communities EIA works to help?
Go to bit.ly/EIAh2o to find out.
Take a quick four-minute survey to see how your water usage measures against the families in EIA communities struggling with water poverty. Next, make a pledge to reduce your impact on the global water crisis and share your results and new commitment with your family and friends on social media with a challenge for them to do the same. With awareness, we can make an impact!
You’ll be amazed to see how much water you use, and even more amazed to realize how many people around the globe struggle for a fraction of the clean, safe water we often take for granted.