As a brand new Durangoan I was excited to get an invitation to speak with a class at Fort Lewis College back in February. Dr. Andy Young, Assistant Professor for Physics and Engineering and Village Aid Project faculty partner, is teaching the inaugural class of an honors course aimed at bringing multi-disciplinary student and faculty perspectives to bear on the challenge of sustainability in Village Aid Project (VAP) projects in Latin America and Myanmar. VAP at Fort Lewis College is a student-centered, humanitarian organization whose mission is to partner with needy communities in the developing world to find sustainable solutions to their critical engineering problems.
VAP was born in the FLC Physics & Engineering department, and has long sought better ways to create community ownership and local sustainability of its projects, including mandatory coursework for all VAP student volunteers focusing on technical, social, economic, and environmental forces that impact the ability to effectively provide sustainable, appropriate technologies in the developing world. This also includes partnering with NGOs in the countries where VAP operates, including its partnership with Shanta in Myanmar since 2014. I hadn’t set foot in a classroom in more than a decade by the time I joined them, and everyone I had met from VAP was an engineer, so I had little idea what to expect. Especially, as it turns out, that these were almost entirely not engineers.
Getting the chance to teach a class for the Fort Lewis College Honors Program related to VAP was a great opportunity, and a great experience. As an assistant professor in the Physics and Engineering program, I don’t often get students from outside of our department. The slice of the student population that engaged with the class were extremely motivated, cared deeply about the work VAP is doing, and were eager to contribute to VAP, without exception. Bringing in Dan’s expertise from the Shanta Foundation was invaluable for the students. Students were able to make connections to the international development community, get a sense of the realities of development work, and get feedback and direction on their projects from a community member who is deeply involved in work they are all interested in.
– Andy Young, PhD, Dept. of Physics and Engineering, Fort Lewis College
One of the six students was an engineering major who has participated in the preparations for VAP projects in previous years. The others included majors in public health, education, and anthropology who came to the class as an opportunity to work on an honors project in a new and different type of environment. Their projects ranged from instruction manuals for maintenance and construction of latrines and water systems, to arts projects aimed at linking more community members to the VAP projects and student volunteers, to better analyze and use project and beneficiary data to measure project performance in line with the United Nation’s human rights framework. For VAP this was an opportunity to bring some of the brightest minds at the school in to help plan and test new approaches to sustainability. What immediately impressed me was how sharp their questions were at getting to the heart of what other disciplines could do for the long-term success of VAPs’ projects. While they were clearly sticking to a focus on something of direct application to support VAP, they each brought their own personal lens to look at what VAP has done and could do.
We weren’t yet in COVID- related lockdown when Andy invited me back to observe their final project presentations, which I gladly accepted so I could see what they planned to pilot in their May travels to Ecuador, Nicaragua, and Myanmar. The movement restrictions threw that planning into turmoil for a few weeks, but it soon became clear that the presentation, like all of the rest of FLC’s Spring semester, would be done remotely. More disappointingly for the students, with the tight window of opportunity for school-aligned travel, their travel and project implementation had to be cancelled for 2020. Despite this they gave inspired (and inspiring) presentations. I was immediately struck by how many of them were able to quickly drill down to the fundamental challenges of sustainability. I suspect that this understanding was well informed by the experience of their professors as well as the many VAP community partner veterans in and around Durango.
Even more impressive was that they each emerged with such thoughtful and practical solutions to take on the most stubborn sustainability challenges. Projects on guided letter-writing exchanges between student volunteers or community participants and villagers, and a joint flag-making project were a thoughtful blend of accessible, engaging, and free-form creativity to build community inclusion and ownership of projects among a broader segment of the population. Instruction manuals did a great job of addressing cross-cultural communication by thinking through the process from linguistic, anthropological, and deeply practical perspectives – while also using novel approaches such as 3D rendering and IKEA-like presentation. I thought the consolidation of data collection tool and guidance for better data availability and quality was a necessary approach (and usually where international development agencies stop); the student went beyond this to draft Terms of Reference to have someone specialized in the data collection tool and methodology on each project team to ensure quality and consistency. This was a great example of something critical to better delivery of international assistance that they all did well – linking hardware and software because the better they each are the better the whole project will be.
This process is something I haven’t seen in my twelve years of humanitarian work. It is a rare opportunity for a nonprofit to have access to a pool of smart young minds who can bring fresh perspectives and a wide variety of disciplines to tackle very practical problems. Fort Lewis College and the Village Aid Project team have taken advantage of that and are leveraging it to serve their partner communities better in the future. The lessons these students learned will surely help them in whatever they pursue in the future, but I hope at least some join us in international development to keep tackling these challenges.
-Dan Osnato, Shanta Program Manager