Despite good intentions, many overseas service organizations miss the mark. They may sweep in, build or fix something or provide a solution to a difficult problem, then leave and move on somewhere else.
Antonella Lisanti’s group — Engineers Without Borders — does good. But it also makes sure the good survives after it goes.
The 2008 Staples grad — currently a biomedical engineering and pre-med major — has been involved with Yale’s student chapter for several years. She applied as much for the travel opportunities as anything else. But after being selected — and getting her hands dirty on a few projects – she was hooked.
A recent experience in Cameroon cemented her belief in the importance of EWB. The community of Kikoo had always used water from polluted streams. The result was a continuing plague of waterborne illnesses like gastrointestinal infections and dysentery.
The Yale team designed a water distribution and storage system to alleviate water pollution. Antonella was involved in latrines.
That’s a lot harder than it sounds.
“We were building latrines with better ventilation, and that are more sanitary,” she explains. The group spent plenty of time before arriving trying to figure where to place the latrines. Without cellphone or email access, that’s not easy.
One of the latrines — for an elementary school — was designed with 2 holes: one for males, one for females. But when the group arrived, the headmaster said he wanted a 3rd, for teachers.
“There was a lot of negotiating,” Antonella says. Her group altered their design, reconfigured their supplies, changed concrete slabs, and ultimately provided the village with the latrines it needed — and wanted.
Their work — which included 9 kilometers of PVC piping, and 14 standpipes — did not end there.
“Engineering projects can make people’s lives better,” Antonella says.
“But you can’t go into a developing country with your own agenda. You can’t just build a latrine; you need training. And then you have to help the community take ownership of it.”
EWB works with the same communities, year after year. “They feel these projects are their own,” she says of the villagers. “We train them on maintenance. We go back. We address problems. We’re really partners with them.”
There are over 250 EWB-USA chapters, including 180 on college campuses. They work on more than 350 projects in dozens of developing countries.
This year, Antonella’s Yale chapter — of which she is now co-president — received EWB-USA’s Premier Project Award.
It’s a tremendous honor. But Antonella deflects credit, to her fellow volunteers and their mentor, Dave Sacco. “We learn so much from him,” she says. “Not just engineering, but thinking on our feet, working with different cultures, learning to navigate community politics.”
Her experience in developing countries has solidified a desire to continue this type of work, focusing on health issues. After graduating next spring, she hopes to work in the public health sector, before heading to med school.
Antonella’s love for science was nurtured at Staples. The high school “trained me to be diligent,” she says. “I learned to stick with things, no matter how difficult — like college, and the trip to Cameroon.”
Westport was “wonderful” to grow up in, she says — “but it’s a small place.” Going to college made me realize there’s so much more to the world. I really want to see it.”
College students talk about graduating, and heading out into “the real world.”
Antonella Lisanti has 2 semesters to go. But in many ways, she’s already there.
(EWB accepts contributions to help fund its projects: Engineers Without Borders — Yale Student Chapter, PO Box 206615, New Haven, CT 06520. For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org).