5 Tips for a Successful Service Engineering Project Abroad

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During the past 6 years, I have made a big effort to be involved in service-based organizations like Engineers Without Borders. I believe every engineer should volunteer in any way they can with local organizations to help people in need. At the end of the day, we are a profession that is service-based. In this article, I will give you advice on how to make the project a success.

There are multiple things to consider while working in developing countries, from travel logistics and communication to more technical manners such as codes and construction methods. I have been able to travel to Bolivia and Puerto Rico to work with these communities and, despite Puerto Rico being a US territory, I found a lot of similarities among them. Here are a few considerations I have found useful while working abroad.

1. Be Safe

First things first, you need to watch out for yourself. No matter where you go (even within the US) you need to be aware there are parts of the city and country that are less safe than others. For international travel, I would recommend partnering with a local organization to get more information about the area you will be working in. A lot of times there is land travel involved inside the country where you will need to take long trips on dirt roads. Believe me, you will not want to get lost in a foreign country because you don’t have a local with you.

2. Plan as best you can and give yourself room

Let’s face it. Travel never goes as planned. But this is even more applicable when you are working with underserved communities. I have found that these communities tend to work slower than what we are used to here in the US. For instance, in Bolivia, we would only be on-site for work with the community from 10 am to around 3 or 4 pm. We also found out they do not do any work on Mondays which set us back a day from what we planned. When planning these service-engineering trips I like to plan the way I think it will go and then multiply that by some factor to account for minor setbacks such as lack of labor, materials not being on-site, or even bad weather. This is where knowing a local can also help you plan ahead for timing and planning!

3. Get to know the locals

There is no better way to connect with the community than spending some quality time with them outside of “work”. I have been fortunate to have worked with communities that speak Spanish (my first language) so communication has been fairly easy for me. I would encourage anyone traveling to a country where English is not the first language to know some of the basic words such as “Hello”, “Good-Bye”, “Please”, and “Thank You” — Believe me, they will go a long way. It is also important to learn a little more about the culture and possibly the gastronomy. In general, these developing countries have some of the friendliest and happiest people I have met. They are so grateful you are there helping so a little effort on becoming one of them would go a long way. I have seen some of the community members try to teach Spanish to some of the people I have traveled with and we even played a pick-up soccer match when in Bolivia.

4. Learn the basics of engineering

We are very knowledgeable as engineers and a lot of times get used to having the most advanced technology and machinery at our disposal. When working in developing countries we pretty much have to go back to basics. We need to be able to come up with simple but elegant solutions that are going to empower these communities. For instance, by using local materials and easy to maintain facilities we provide them with a solution that they can maintain if something goes wrong. This also provides them with economic benefit, since we are not bringing in our own materials but rather purchasing from there. In Bolivia, we installed several PVC pipe chlorinators and slow filtration sand filters that require minimal maintenance and no energy. How can we think less like engineers and more like members of these communities? We may be able to design “fancy” and sophisticated infrastructure but at the end of the day, local communities should be able to build and maintain whatever we design.

“Design is not how it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works” — Steve Jobs

5. Enjoy Yourself

At the end of the day, working on this service-engineering project should be joyful. Plan for a quick trip out to enjoy the local culture and landscape. For many of us, this could be the first and last time we visit this country and community. The locals are a lot of times happy to help you get around and get to know what their daily lives look like.

We are providing a service to these communities. I am very grateful to EWB for giving me the opportunity to help all these people through my engineering knowledge. Coming from a country with several economic struggles, I feel like it is an obligation for me to empower all these communities. I have been blessed with a lot of opportunities and giving back gives me a lot of joy.

This is some key advice I have found useful when working with small communities in different countries for the past few years. I believe the ability to simplify problems and know the basics of engineering will take you further than if you use all the technology we have at our disposal here in the US. Be conscious of where you are and show the community you really care by being involved in their cultural activities.

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