Editor’s note: This article was originally published in Issue 34 of The Gazelle, the student publication at NYU Abu Dhabi. It has been reprinted with permission as a part of an ongoing collaboration between The Gazelle and WSN to connect our two campuses.
A group of engineering and economics students from NYU Abu Dhabi visited Galle, Sri Lanka during last spring break from March 21 to 27 to volunteer for Habitat for Humanity, a non-governmental organization that builds houses for poor families. The trip was organized through Engineers for Social Impact, a program designed by Dean of Engineering Dr. Sunil Kumar, the Associate Dean of Engineering Dr. Ramesh Jagannathan and Associate Vice Chancellor of Global Education and Outreach Carol Brandt.
Established in 1995, Habitat for Humanity is an international organization operating in various parts of the world, aiming to build houses with the assistance of volunteering groups for people in need who do not have the means to build their own residences. EFSI strives to allow engineering students to learn outside the classroom, especially from communities and families. According to Technical Manager and Instructor of Engineering Philip Panicker, the program’s aim is to let students employ their skills in poverty-stricken places and understand the social effects of engineering solutions.
“One of the main aims of the EFSI [program] is to [get] students to use their skills to benefit people who are at near bottom of the economic pyramid,” said Panicker. “And we would like to expose students to what we call field labs.”
The group in Sri Lanka focused on the humanitarian aspect of engineering, meaning they collaborated with families and helped them build their houses. The students were divided into seven groups and assigned to work on 16 different houses each in different stages of completion. Each group was led by a staff member and was assigned a topic to complete for a final research presentation. Some of the topics discussed were sanitation, communication and energy consumption.
According to the students interviewed, the families they worked with were welcoming and hospitable. They were surprised that foreign university students would be willing to work with them to build their houses.
“They offered us tea and took out their best crockery,” said freshman Asfandyar Sirhindhi. “Afeef [Sahabdeen, a Sri Lankan freshman] told us that they were asking, ‘Why are these students here?’, ‘Are they being punished?’” continued Sirhindhi. Sahabdeen translated stories of the families, the designs they wanted and any other questions they had.
For freshman James Gardner, the way Habitat for Humanity works allows people to be proud of their houses in a different way, rather than feel that they have received charity from someone better off than them.
“You are doing something, not for somebody, but with somebody,” said freshman Pablo Pacareu. He emphasized that the students were not seen as outsiders, but as people that were assisting them and learning from them.
Students said that they felt they learned much more from this experience than they do in class.
“It’s really rewarding, I found out, to work with your hands and see something come up in front of you,” said Gardner.
Reflecting on the program, Panicker said, “This was not a vacation; it was a working trip. They did put in [an] excellent amount of effort. Despite the hard work, the hotel wasn’t a five-star hotel, the food wasn’t always the best, I think they did their best. They took it all in stride. We are very pleased with our students.”
Khadeeja Farooqui is deputy features editor. Email her at email@example.com.