Building a Better World
Alum connects with students to make humanitarian trip a reality

 

By Leanna Ihry

 

Pictured from left: Jonathan Wirkkala, EWB president; Annie Miles, former EWB president; David Robinson, '70, mentor and professional engineer; Brian Tande, CEM interim dean.

The pursuit to build a better world is the driving force behind the national organization Engineers Without Borders (EWB-USA) – a group of about 14,000 volunteers who donate their energy, time and skills to meet basic needs for humanity. 

It all started nearly 20 years ago when Dr. Bernard Amadei, a professor of civil engineering at the University of Colorado Boulder, visited San Pablo, Belize, to access its water supply.  It was then he learned that nearly 1,000 Mayan Indians living in the jungle didn’t have clean water and sanitation and, in turn, children in the community were not going to school because their time was being spent collecting water miles away.

Professor Amadei returned to Colorado where he consulted students and put a plan into action to install a water system supplied and powered by a waterfall a quarter mile from the community. This low-tech, high-impact project was the first for EWB-USA. Since then, professional and student engineers at Universities throughout the country have joined together to form Engineers Without Borders chapters.  At the University of North Dakota, EWB President Jonathan Wirkkala is involved because he believes if someone can help a community, they should.  “I was in the Air Force and stationed in the Middle East and I started taking classes online through UND. Because of my experiences overseas, I knew I wanted to use my engineering skills to help people,” Wirkkala said.

Upon arriving on campus in January, Wirkkala attended a student organization fair and learned about EWB. The president at the time, Annie Miles, told him about a spring break humanitarian project with the chapter. Enthusiastic and motivated to make a difference, Wirkkala joined and was elected president almost instantly! “We have a very wide knowledge base and experience; as well as a relatively unique set of skills and those skills will allow us to provide clean water to this community.”

In January 2020, Wirkkala, along with a group of about a half dozen student engineers from UND, will make the trek to Central America as part of a five-year commitment to the community. UND mechanical engineering alum David Robinson, ’70, is essential in making the trip possible. “The first submission for an EWB project was denied because the UND chapter didn’t have a registered Professional Engineer mentor. After learning of this need, considering my lengthy involvement with EWB National and after retiring from BCER Inc. Engineering, I am honored to come back to UND and help these students design their project. This is about student education and letting them know there is a real world out there that needs us,” Robinson explained.

Over the next five years, Robinson and the students, including Wirkkala, will continue to build relationships with the Guatemalan community. In January, on their first voyage, they will go to assess an initial water project to bring back information to perform the design. This initial trip will be followed by visits in subsequent years to implement the construction of the water project, to teach the required maintenance plan and to design/construct other projects that the community may need. “The real goal of EWB is to build a capacity within the community so the community may become more self-sufficient,” Robinson explained.

As Wirkkala has experienced first-hand during his time in the Air Force, traveling the world changes your view on a lot of things and this experience is so important for students. Robinson said, “It gives them a venue of, hey, there’s more than just going to work for a company to use your engineering degree. You can provide a little spiral up for an entire community and change lives.”