Alejandra Deza, a junior aerospace engineering major on her first Engineers Without Borders project trip abroad, was scouting storefronts in Veron, Dominican Republic, for a “ferreteria,” the local version of a Home Depot. She and two fellow participants from Virginia Tech University were looking for supplies needed to assess whether an ultraviolet-light water-disinfection system previously installed by university colleagues at a free clinic worked properly.

Students Deza and Packett and mentor Stacy at clinic site.
Photo: Debra K. Rubin / ENR
Students Deza and Packett and mentor Stacy at clinic site.

The clinic, operated by a university medical school, is the only one in this impoverished town of 20,000 serving its growing Haitian population, immigrants lured by construction and other jobs in the nearby Punta Cana resort on the island’s east coast. Patients lined up as early as 5:30 a.m. to be seen by medical personnel.

Deza, from Lima, Peru, and her colleagues—Ryan Packett, a mechanical engineering sophomore and J.D. McCoy, a junior biological systems engineer—are spending spring break on their Veron project. Also along are two EWB project mentors from Virginia: Will Stacy, a mechanical engineer who does business in the Dominican Republic, and Alan Raflo, a state-employed water quality expert. Stacy has helped previous VaTech teams at the site and knows it well.

McCoy and Packett are the project managers, drawn to EWB by its mission of engineering for community service. Deza’s Spanish fluency helped land her a team spot. EWB travel is expensive and coveted. Virginia Tech’s chapter raised $5,000 for the team's planned visits. “Our treasurer is on the ball,” says Packett. Lack of funding has already stalled an intended energy project in Uganda.

The Veron team is staying in dorm rooms above the Punta Cana Ecological Foundation office. Resort developers formed the nonprofit group to protect the area’s natural resources. Stacy says accomodations are good, compared to other EWB project sites, where participants “sleep on cement or dirt floors.”

Extensive off-site strategizing of technical challenges precedes the team's first-day visit to the clinic and to an overcrowded school, which taps into the site’s water supply. Sanitation at the site is challenged as well. Students note the need to enlist the support of their “clients,” clinic doctors and the school's principal, or “duena,” to ensure proper and long-term operation of the UV system. Gaining support from local Peace Corps workers and a water testing lab are also critical to project success. The EWB team learns how cultural issues can affect project success, such as whether children will drink from a pipe at school when they drink bottled water everywhere else.

By the second day, team members, armed with locally purchased supplies, check system flow rates and draw diagrams to be copied into laptops in their rooms. McCoy remembers that he also has engineering coursework to finish before this trip ends. “We'll be super-successful if we get enough information now to do a design later,” says Stacy.