For Cornell students in Ithaca designing water plants for Honduras, living so far away poses obvious challenges in logistics and communication, as well as language.
Having two recent Cornell graduates stationed in Honduras, however, is like having a mini-team there at all times.
That is how engineering students in Cornell's AguaClara program, who spent two weeks over winter break, Jan. 4-20, in Honduras visiting water treatment plants, described the work of Carol Serna '06, M.Eng. '07, and John Erickson '07. The two alumni are on one-year assignments in Honduras working as AguaClara engineering interns.
"They're like our eyes here and our mouths here," said Kolby Hoover '07, M.Eng. '08, during the trip.
Serna, with an undergraduate degree in biological engineering and a master's in environmental engineering, and Erickson, who studied civil and environmental engineering as an undergraduate, are working as full-time engineers for the Honduran nonprofit Agua Para el Pueblo, which is AguaClara's local partner organization. The internship is funded by the Sanjuan Foundation, whose benefactors are Elizabeth Sanjuan and her husband, Ken Brown '74.
Serna and Erickson are living in the Honduran town of Támara, where the next AguaClara treatment plant is under construction. Both former students of Monroe Weber-Shirk, Cornell civil and environmental engineering senior lecturer and leader of the AguaClara Project Team, they jumped at the opportunity to spend time in a country where water treatment plants are badly needed and where their engineering knowledge is always in demand.
"I had always wanted to do development work with water and sustainability, so it was perfect," Serna said.
As technical consultants to Agua Para el Pueblo engineers for the AguaClara plants, Serna and Erickson help survey potential sites, review design drafts for new plants and act as go-betweens for the students in Ithaca and the Hondurans.
During the Cornell students' recent visit to Honduras, Serna and Erickson were unofficial guides, accompanying them on excursions across the Honduran countryside to visit water plants, helping to translate and leading tours of a recently completed AguaClara plant in Ojojona, built with more than $30,000 from the Sanjuan Foundation. The alumni helped get that plant up and running last summer.
Serna and Erickson are "the best thing that ever happened to AguaClara," Weber-Shirk said.
"They make it really easy for us to communicate what's happening at Cornell to the Hondurans," he said. "They do a heck of a lot of work."
Erickson says living in Honduras and working with Hondurans has made him realize that building water plants takes not just technical knowledge, but a level of commitment to the community.
"You can design the best treatment plant in the world, but if you can't implement it and get people to use it, it's not going to work," he said.
"It's easy to fail if you're just going to be an engineer," Serna said. "If you're not going to open up your boundaries, look at the culture around you and look at what's going on, you'll never design anything people will use."
Brown, whose family's contributions to AguaClara have totaled about $245,000 in the past three years, expressed enthusiasm with the direction the project is headed.
"The educational value of this project is huge, but it also does good for the world and enlightens the best and brightest engineering talent we have coming into the world," Brown said.