Engineers Without Borders USA’s founder, Dr. Bernard Amadei, envisioned training the next generation of engineers. His vision went far beyond traditional engineering curriculum. Dr. Amadei wanted to create a cadre of engineers able to engineer for the other 5 billion people on the planet, the 90% of the world’s population living in developing countries.
This graduation season we’re checking in with three graduates from the EWB-USA Montana State University Chapter: Luke Thompson, Sara Mo Vanacht and Jeana Ratcliff. Their chapter has been working with the community of Khwisero in Western Kenya to improve the conditions of primary schools since 2005. To date, EWB-USA MSU students have completed approximately 40 projects including 14 wells, two water distribution pipelines, two rainwater catchment systems and 14 latrines.
We can’t wait to see what the future holds for these trailblazers and how their time with EWB-USA changed them and informed their next steps.
Two slides in an otherwise mundane orientation to the Engineering Department at Montana State University sparked Luke Thompson’s interest. Those slides promoted EWB-USA, and Luke thought there might be something “there.” He’d done missionary work in the Dominican Republic and really liked EWB-USA’s focus on community empowerment; “teach a man to fish…,” as he puts it.
Flash forward a year and Luke has joined EWB-USA and is president of a very successful chapter with numerous awards and a promotional video that plays in the Bozeman airport on occasion.
Luke’s involvement in the chapter has meant a lot to him. He’s filled with gratitude. He says he doesn’t want to imagine what his college experience would have been like without EWB-USA. It’s made him more mature, more careful, a better person and has reaffirmed his desire to do good in the world by finding solutions that matter to people on a grand scale.
He’s downright amped about a bio-toilet he’s hoping gets built in Khwisero. He appreciates good design that harnesses the power of the natural world. “Think about it … they’ll have fuel for years,” he says.
Luke’s continuing his studies this fall in the graduate department at MSU, and landed an internship with the construction engineering company DOWL. He’s also eager to mentor or continue playing a role with the student chapter. When asked if he plans on joining EWB-USA’s Montana Professional Chapter, he tells us he already has a call set up with their president. It’s tomorrow, and he’s pitching them on a wetlands project in Guatemala. He’s simply unstoppable.
Sara Mo Vanacht
Sara is a woman on the move, literally. Having just returned from a few weeks of traveling in the South of France for work and visiting family in Belgium, she’s home for a few days and then heading back out again.
As a psychology major minoring in political science, Sara contributed unique skills to the EWB-USA team, including her passion for the management side of projects and her love of budgets and deadlines. As she puts it, she likes to “help steer the ship, keep projects on track and push boundaries.”
“Project management is a really hard skill set, especially for young engineers. Because I wasn’t an engineer, I didn’t have to think about the intricacies of design and I was able to keep the bigger picture in mind,” she said.
Her contributions included reframing situations, motivating people and reminding team members that their obligation was to the people that would be using the project. “Anyone can learn how to be an engineer. It takes a humble person to be an effective engineer for people,” she reflected. “We’re there to implement engineering projects but we’re also there to build community and create relationships.”
Sara says her work with EWB-USA was an incredible opportunity to have as an 18, 19, and 20-year-old. It gave her the tools and confidence to start her own company, SMV Management, last October. The company provides management and consulting services for think tanks and people in creative fields. She’s already got some great clients that keep her on the move.
Right now, Sara’s contemplating a move to the mountains of France. She’s open to a wide range of possibilities in her future and hopes that someday she’ll be able to reconnect with engineers through work with behavioral economics in the technology industry. “Engineers have always been my favorite people. There’s just something about an engineering mind,” she says.
Jeana was on a site inspection with colleagues at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in Los Alamos, NM, where she holds a post-baccalaureate internship supporting environmental compliance, when she took a break to talk with us.
Jeana, a double major in civil engineering and environmental science, laughs as she relays her favorite EWB-USA memory. It is November, and it is one of the coldest and snowiest Novembers on record for Montana. She’s sitting in a conference room with ten Kenyans from Khwisero that the chapter is hosting for an exchange when it starts snowing. Realizing that no one was able to pay attention, they went outside for a snowball fight and built a snowman. It was a particularly humanizing and equalizing moment.
The importance of building relationships and understanding context is something that Jeana’s time with EWB-USA instilled in her and something she’ll carry with her throughout her personal and professional life. For Jeana, being part of a project and making decisions that had practical, real-world outcomes was a weighty responsibility. It made her work consequential and introduced a new level of challenge and maybe even a little bit of fear into her work.
When asked what kind of advice she’d have to fellow EWB-USA student members, she says, “It is easy to do things the way other people have done them, but it just takes one person to ask ‘why’ or ‘what if we did it differently?’” Those kinds of questions, when approached with an open mind, can lead projects in new directions and provide important perspective.
Jeana’s still exploring what the future holds for her. She’s interested in environmental justice issues and is hopeful about what lies ahead.
A Message to Our Graduates
We salute you and wish you well on your journey. May you continue improving people’s lives, stay passionate and take the valuable lessons learned through your work with EWB-USA with you wherever you go.
Let’s stay connected. Continue making a difference by joining your local professional chapter and keeping a lookout on our Volunteer Opportunities Board for service opportunities that align with your ever-growing skills.