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A mural in San Juan Comalapa, Guatemala.

A mural in San Juan Comalapa, Guatemala, shows how running water once only existed in villagers' minds. A U students group is making that dream a reality.

Generosity builds generosity

Humanitarian work of student group inspires alum to make a gift

By Kermit Pattison

From M, summer 2006

Rhonda Pierce is a civil engineer who believes in building those proverbial bridges. Pierce, president of the consulting firm Pierce Pini & Associates in Blaine, had done pro bono projects involving a local school and churches. But she hadn't heard much about engineers volunteering abroad until she read about an organization at the University of Minnesota called Engineers Without Borders. Pierce picked up the phone and gave them $1,000. "It just intrigued me," says Pierce, a 1993 graduate of the Institute of Technology. "It was the sort of group that I would have loved to have been involved with as a student." Her gift will yield big returns. Engineers Without Borders is a nonprofit humanitarian organization that draws on the expertise of student and professional volunteers to build sustainable infrastructure such as water purification, irrigation, and solar energy systems in the developing world. Pierce's donation will help the U's chapter--the first in Minnesota--as it builds a new water system for an ecological park in the highlands of Guatemala. Engineers Without Borders has 103 university chapters and 35 professional chapters in the United States, with active projects in 40 countries. Its work parallels an initiative of the University's Transforming the U strategic plan: civic engagement. The group emphasizes ingenuity to build projects adaptable to local conditions using local materials and labor. "If you bring in any advanced technology, most of the time they're not going to be able to fix it if it breaks," says David Gasperino, a chemical engineering grad student and president of the local chapter. "So you assess how you can fix their problem with a sustainable solution." Community involvement is a key facet of any project. "We work toward getting them to have a stake in what we're building," says Gasperino. "That has proven to be far more successful than just showing up and dumping money." The University chapter has about 10 active members who pay for part of travel expenses out of their own pocket, says Gasperino. Past projects include a school dormitory in Thailand and water filtration systems at Grand Portage Reservation in northern Minnesota. The current project in Guatemala will replace an outdated diesel pump system in a rural indigenous community. Gasperino says the chapter has raised about $2,200 thus far toward its goal of $15,000 for the project. Pierce's gift brings them a step closer. She believes that such efforts benefit both the local community and the students, who see there's a wider world that can benefit from their expertise. "I think it's important that all people give," says Pierce. "Engineers specifically have knowledge and education that can truly benefit people as those people live their lives, work, and play."