8:41 a.m., March 5, 2009----Alyssa Serra, a senior anthropology major, was undeterred by the word “engineers” when she learned about the University of Delaware chapter of Engineers Without Borders at an activities fair last year. She got involved with the group while working on her senior thesis, which focuses on evaluating the efficacy of non-governmental organizations (NGOs).
Using Engineers Without Borders as primary case material for her research, Serra probably could have gathered the information she needed about the organization without leaving Newark, but she was determined to have the full experience. In January, she joined five other members of the UD organization -- four engineering students and faculty adviser Steve Dentel, professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering -- on the chapter's fourth trip to Cameroon.
While the engineers in the group worked with new steel molds to build water filters, Serra spent time talking to people so that she could develop a better understanding of water sources and use in the village. For her, the trip was a cultural experience, and the lessons were more about folks than filters.
“I'm very interested in working for a development agency after I graduate,” Serra says. “The trip showed me that to help people, you really have to understand their problem as well as how they view it. For the people in Bakang, the problem isn't a lack of money but a lack of access to clean water. So it's way more effective to help them by providing inexpensive filters than by giving them money.”
Serra also learned a great deal about poverty during her visit to Cameroon. “By our standards, the people in Bakang are poor because they don't have a lot of money,” she says. “But they're not destitute. They have a strong community, close family relationships, and enough to eat. They just have this one problem that they lack the resources to solve.”
Serra's adviser, Peter Weil, associate professor of anthropology, had recommended that she read Festival Elephants and the Myth of Global Poverty, a book written by developmental anthropologist D. Glynn Cochrane. The book came to have profound meaning for her after her stay in Cameroon.
“They [the people in Bakang] do not consider themselves part of the endemic of global poverty,” she wrote in one of her trip blog entries. “Instead, they see themselves as a strong village with a problem of water access. The premise of Festival Elephants is that 'global poverty' cannot exist because the concept of poverty itself is defined by the community and therefore cannot be uniform across the world. For some societies, this means a lack of family, food, money, even cows. In the case of Bakang, it is a lack of access to water.”
For Serra, the pivotal moment in the trip came near the end of the visit, when the village water committee met to discuss how the new water filters would be distributed and paid for. The women had been relegated to sit outside the hut because “they didn't understand the value of the project.” Everything changed when Peter, a northern Cameroonian who works with bio-filters, told the chief he would not continue without the support of the women, as they were the ones who gathered water and were therefore most affected by the project. Impromptu singing and dancing followed, and by the end of the meeting, every family present had signed up for a filter.
As the first -- and so far the only -- non-engineer to join UD Engineers Without Borders, Serra has brought a unique perspective to the group's work in Cameroon. “We shouldn't assume that engineers and non-engineers have completely different attitudes or skills,” Dentel says. “But Alyssa did have a 'non-engineering' assignment, which allowed her to use her training and personal skills in a unique way that really added to our project's success. I expect that we'll continue sending project teams with this broader perspective, because it helps us link our technical work with the community needs.”
“For me,” Serra says, “the project served as ethnographic research training through which I was able to develop different hypotheses about the way in which NGOs help alleviate poverty. My relationship with EWB has been mutually beneficial, as I had the opportunity to do this research training and they had the opportunity to gain a completely different perspective, which ultimately is good for the overall longevity of the project. I intend to give them my full results when I'm done with my thesis.”
“Alyssa is bright, independent, and a fast learner,” says Weil. “She also has a lot of guts. In approaching this subject, she quickly realized that she was dealing with a very complex problem. This project enabled her to gain some valuable insights into how to work with people while also learning from them.”
Serra's thesis research and her trip to Cameroon were supported by the University of Delaware Undergraduate Research Program, Alumni Association, Center for International Studies and the Department of Anthropology.
Serra is an Honors Program student working toward an Honors Degree with Distinction, the most prestigious of the enriched degrees awarded by UD.
Article by Diane Kukich