Changing Lives

By Ashley Jenkins

Rebecca Jackson, second from right, joined other college students to use their engineering skills to create rain water catchment systems in Uganda.For 24 years, the National Precast Concrete Association Educational Foundation (NPCAEF) has awarded scholarships to students with the goal of creating a specifying community that understands the features and benefits of precast concrete. This message has been shared with scholarship recipients from all different backgrounds that have attended schools from coast to coast, majored in a wide range of construction-related trades and earned degrees from some of the most prestigious higher-education institutions in the United States.

These achievements alone speak to the success of the foundation. However, a deeper look reveals ancillary benefits – life-changing experiences made possible by these scholarships – that are not always shared.

Thanks to the scholarships, students can focus on their academics and immerse themselves in activities related to their majors such as student groups and leadership positions. These experiences help mold and shape students as much as any classroom or professor.

The trip of a lifetime

Rebecca JacksonRebecca Jackson, a recipient of an NPCAEF scholarship and a recent graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), took part in a life-changing trip to Uganda last summer. The experience opened her eyes to the world beyond her vision and has helped shape the person and professional she will become.

In high school, Jackson knew she wanted to pursue a career in civil engineering, so when she found out about the NPCAEF, she knew it was a perfect match. She chose MIT because of its reputable engineering school and its positive and influential culture. Jackson studied everything from structural design and project evaluation to required humanities courses meant to round out students culturally and mentally such as Japanese Cinema and Literature.

Ironically, it was an opportunity right within her own major, with the organization Engineers without Borders, which has been more influential culturally than any humanities course. Jackson was invited on a trip to Uganda, thanks to several years of civil engineering design classes that made her a strong candidate for the trip. She knew immediately that she had to seize the opportunity.

“I have a strong belief in giving back to the world that has given me so much,” Jackson said. “I am very blessed to live my life.”

The trip lasted seven weeks and the work consisted of creating six rainwater catchment systems in Ddegeya, Uganda, while also educating the community about water safety and water sanitation. Uganda has a hilly terrain and villages are positioned at the peaks. In order to retrieve water, individuals from the village must go to the valleys where wells have been drilled below the water table. This necessary trip makes water collection an exhausting daily chore that is often borne by children who are sometimes forgoing school due to the time and energy commitment required.

Immersed in a culture

Upon arrival, Jackson was paired with a family and lived with them for the next seven weeks, taking part in all household activities and becoming a temporary part of the family. “We ate with them, slept in their homes, played with their kids and met their pet goats,” she said.

While some of the villagers were skeptical of the presence of the group, consisting of three MIT students, two professional engineers and a student from Maceray University, the team worked hard to gain acceptance through education and by creating a group of community leaders who were in charge of managing the retention tanks after their departure. They also rolled up their sleeves and helped with the construction, which went a long way in changing the perception of the more skeptical villagers.

In order to alleviate the burden of the daily trips to the wells and to help buffer the village against the dry season, Jackson and her team constructed underground systems that are several thousand gallons each and fed by roof gutters during the rainy season. The group decided to use a technique that consisted of an above-ground masonry structure and an underground cylinder dug about two meters deep and lined using ferrocement applied to chicken mesh.

Changing LivesThroughout the process there was a lot of redesigning on the ground, which was a new experience for Jackson – particularly with no Internet connection. In school she learned and studied design, but now she was putting it into practice for the first time, which really brought forth the technical skills she had been learning at MIT. She learned to redesign and experiment on the spot, recalculate and observe the site conditions that changed on a daily basis.

The technique included adding a waterproofing agent to the mixture and using the surrounding earth for most of the structural support. With the water retention tanks, the village now has an easily accessible, year-round water supply, and the children have the time and energy to go to school.

“I have very strong opinions on education,” Jackson said. “I think that education is something that should be guaranteed to everyone, and it was upsetting to see that there were kids who were just too fatigued to go to school. It’s really awesome that we got to do this project, because this is a way for these kids to step out of the position of fetching water every day.”

Lessons learned

The experience taught Jackson not only engineering and communication skills, but how to deal with sensitive situations. She learned how to negotiate and compromise, and experienced the “nitty gritty” design work and how to interact with different people with different goals and perceptions.

“The people I worked with in Uganda taught me so much,” Jackson said. “Although most had little education, they have an insatiable thirst for knowledge. Working side by side with the villagers taught me that sustainable design comes from understanding not just the engineering problem, but also the social implications of the work.”

Thanks to her scholarship allowing her to experience MIT to the fullest, Jackson will carry her experience in Uganda with her for the rest of her life. Spending time with a community that struggles to meet basic needs on a daily basis helped put her own life into perspective.

Because of her experience, and seeing just how little one can live on, Jackson has paid closer attention to her own spending and has started setting aside money for charities. The biggest lesson she will take from her experience, in her career and her daily life, is a basic passion for other humans.

“There was definitely an element of culture shock,” she said. “You always read these heart-wrenching stories, but you feel so distant from them. They are people just like you or me and they have emotions, they have dreams and they have wants.

“No matter whether it’s my career or dealing with people outside of work, just having a basic understanding of what it’s like to be another human and what it’s like to put yourself in someone else’s shoes is very important.”

Ashley Jenkins, a graduate from Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, served an internship with NPCA for two semesters in her pursuit of a Communications degree.

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