Abigail Smith, Class of 2017
In the fall of 2014, a group of Virginia Tech students (including Abigail Smith, currently an ISE senior) founded a new student organization called Service Without Borders (SWB). The mission of SWB is to share the spirit of Virginia Tech’s motto, Ut Prosim (That I May Serve), locally and globally by partnering with communities in need. The efforts of SWB are intended to be interdisciplinary and promote the development of student design, project management, fundraising, and technical writing skills for Virginia Tech students, as well as increasing cultural understanding through international experiences. The students previously worked on a Virginia Tech Engineers Without Borders (EWB) project in Haiti, which was completed in the fall of 2014.
Service without Borders initiated a program in Nepal after Dr. Theo Dillaha, the former EWB advisor and current SWB advisor, connected the students with Dr. Tom Hammett of the Virginia Tech Department of Sustainable Biomaterials. Dr. Hammett previously served in the Peace Corps in Nepal, has worked on several projects at universities in Nepal, and is the President of the Tshampa Foundation, a Blacksburg non-profit that supports the teachings of Amchi Chhamb Nahwang Lama [Gurung], also known as Dr. Tshampa Ngawang. Dr. Tshampa Ngawang is a practicing, traditional Tibetan doctor (Amchi) and a prominent Buddhist lama. He teaches traditional Tibetan culture and language in Nepal to the children of Tibetan refugees – who only learn Nepali and English languages in Nepali schools. He has visited Blacksburg, given guest lectures and taught a semester-long course at Virginia Tech. He is the elected leader of the Baarah Gaun Committee, a group of 12 communities in Nepal. One of these is Dhumba Village.
In January of 2016, a SWB delegation traveled to Dhumba Village, Nepal (shown above). The purpose of the trip was to investigate potential SWB projects and to establish relationships with local partners. The SWB delegation included Abigail Smith (SWB Director and ISE student), Donald Savacool (SWB Vice-President and Chemical Engineering student), Thomas Belvin (SWB Project Lead and Mechanical Engineering student), Dr. Theo Dillaha (SWB Advisor and Professor Emeritus of Biological Systems Engineering), and Dr. Brian Benham (SWB Advisor and Professor and Extension Specialist in Biological Systems Engineering). The students generated funding for the trip by soliciting contributions from their respective academic departments, including the Excellence Fund through the ISE Department, as well as the College of Engineering, the Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Sciences, and local fundraising activities.
During the January 2016 assessment trip, the SWB delegation traveled to multiple sites in the community of Dhumba to collect baseline engineering data required for subsequent engineering design, construction, and fund raising activities. These sites included the Dhumba Village primary school, irrigation system and community center, as well as a local monastery. Through discussions with the community, the team identified an earthquake-damaged agricultural irrigation system in the community of Dhumba, Nepal as a feasible project. The Dhumba community has historically used a river-fed, ditch-based irrigation water distribution system to provide water for the community (shown above). The irrigation system was made up of a distribution canal spanning approximately 1 km. The distribution canal included both concrete-lined sections and unlined, earthen sections. Much of the concrete-lined canal was severely damaged during the April 2015 earthquakes, and the unlined, earthen channel was plagued with excessive seepage losses (water flowing into the channel banks rather than being delivered to the fields). As a result of the earthquake damage and the excessive seepage losses, the entire irrigation system was no longer functional. Rehabilitation of the village irrigation system was beyond the resources of the Dhumba community and was critical to their livelihood as they relied on this water for subsistence and cash crop farming.
The SWB cohort collected data and signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Dhumba Village Committee Secretary (shown above), to agree to partner on this project, as well as future projects for a minimum of five years.
A Personal Perspective from Abigail Smith
"I never would have imagined that I could travel to Nepal, let alone with the unwavering support of my university. In the spring of my sophomore year, I had just co-founded Service Without Borders, and the other two cofounders and I were trying to garner financial support so that we could travel that summer on an assessment trip. With hardly any credibility other than a brief stint as leaders of an Engineers Without Borders project, we went to each of our departments, pitching our new club and idea to travel to Nepal. At that point I had been in the ISE Department for less than a year, but Dr. Van Aken offered nothing but support. What started as an idea was put into action through the ISE Excellence Fund.
Service Without Borders began as a group of three students and an advisor, and over the course of two years has grown into a 100+ member organization. In the summer of 2016, a new cohort of six students and two professors traveled to implement the agricultural irrigation system alongside the community. As an organization, we are driving forward and growing every semester. I am so grateful for the ISE Department for believing in us and supporting us each step of the way.
The trip opened my eyes to one of the most beautiful regions of the world that is rich in culture and natural beauty. My ISE education encourages me to think about the challenges we’ve faced strategically and with the broader picture in mind. In my coursework I’ve learned about managing ambiguity and driving strategic conversations. This trip pushed me to put those practices to use, and often times with a language barrier. Most importantly, I’ve learned how to build relationships, lead and grow an organization, and manage an international partnership. Since the trip in January, I have given seminars across Virginia Tech, including to the ISE Department, and will continue to recruit students from ISE. This trip would not have been possible without the support of the Excellence Fund, and I am incredibly grateful for the opportunities it has provided me."
Updates on this Nepal project can be found in the Service Without Borders newsletter and "Virginia Tech service group establishes partnership in Nepal" on Virginia Tech News (Nov. 8, 2016).
Abigail Smith is a senior in the ISE department. For more information about the Service Without Borders at VT, please visit their website at: http://swbvt.weebly.com/.