Students with Working Across Vocations Everywhere through Service (WAVES) at Valparaiso University spent their spring break making a difference in the lives of people in Nicaragua, serving the population and using their ingenuity to make a positive impact. The group was split into two teams: future educators there to work with local students and teachers, and engineers (along with a nursing student) who installed solar panels to power a local well.
The well provides water to 30-40 families in the area, and operates on an electric pump system. However, providing the necessary energy to the area is becoming increasingly difficult and expensive. A church in the United States donated money to install a solar energy system and provide relief to the region. For Valparaiso University students, the project aligned perfectly with the University’s dedication to service.
“We have a minor in humanitarian engineering and this trip fits right into that,” says Jay Grossman, Ph.D., P.E., assistant professor of civil engineering.
Planning the trip was an undertaking in and of itself. Professor Grossman, along with civil engineering majors Allison Yohanan ’24 and Carly Schiene ’24 and Selina Bartels, Ph.D., assistant professor of education, went to Nicaragua in the summer of 2022 to scout the area and see how they could use their time most effectively. Back at home, Allison and Carly, as well as their fellow engineers, had the daunting task of learning how to problem-solve for an entirely new field of technology.
“None of us had ever really done anything with solar, so we had to do a lot of research,” Allison says.
On the spring break trip itself, the Valpo group primarily stayed in León, Nicaragua’s second largest city, while working in one of the small communities in the area. For Allison and Carly, who’s prior excursions outside U.S. borders consisted of trips to Canada and the Bahamas, it was a very different world.
“One of the biggest differences was quality of life,” Allison says. “We left the airport and drove to the hotel, and we got to see a lot of the houses and ways that they lived. A lot of areas are like shanties, at least in the rural areas.”
“We had to get used to seeing a lot of animals wandering around that didn’t belong to anyone,” Carly adds. “There were things like not being able to drink the water or flush toilet paper, just a lot of things you would never think of, but are their reality.”
Adding solar power to an electronic pump would have been a very difficult task for students at home in the United States surrounded by English-speaking partners. For relative newcomers to solar energy technology, being in a foreign country and working through a language barrier added considerable challenge to the process. Additionally, much of the equipment that the team would normally use, or at least have access to, could not be brought with them, forcing the group to rely on local assistance to complete their work.
Despite the challenges, the installation remained a student-led endeavor, and the team plied what resources were still available to get the job done.
“The students took over the solar panel installation part of the project,” Professor Grossman said. “Their job was to figure out a whole new system that they weren’t familiar with and put it together, and do the wiring — thanks to YouTube. We were all learning as we went.”
Thanks to their prior research, the assistance of Professor Grossman, and help from the surrounding community, the team was able to bring solar power to both the water pump, as originally intended, and to the church as a whole. While the project was immensely beneficial to the community, Valpo students reaped their own share of rewards.
“The experience is amazing and the students learn so much and it’s a great outlet for providing service,” says Professor Grossman. “Students also learn a lot of really valuable lessons and skills. They learned how Nicaraguan teachers deal with their students and how education works in developing countries. They learned the technical aspects of solar panels, all of the students learned so much about a new culture. They give a lot and they learn a lot on these trips.”
For Allison, who hopes to work in water management after graduation, seeing how another culture solved problems was a valuable experience for her future goals.
“The most important thing I learned was seeing the different perspectives and use of different resources,” she says. “They don’t have everything we have here in the US, and the resourcefulness was really cool to see. I feel like I’ve gained a new perspective on how to make new solutions to things.”
In addition to working with educators and water pumps, the WAVES team explored the local culture and landscape, visiting Managua and Granada as well as the volcanic island of Olmatepe.
“My favorite part of these trips is introducing students to a different culture and a different situation,” Professor Grossman says. “The work we do is important and interesting, but getting that experience in a developing country is great. And I think the connections that they made with the locals were so valuable.”While there are no definitive plans, Professor Grossman is hopeful that future students will be able to return to Nicaragua to continue making connections and improving lives. To learn more about WAVES, visit valpo.edu/waves.