Students Spend a Humanitarian Holiday Break in India

students in india - interior   

For some, the holiday break means recovering from finals, skiing, or spending time with loved ones. For others, it’s an opportunity to serve.

On December 16, 12 university students and faculty from various disciplines journeyed to India for two weeks. Their mission: to use their expertise to improve the lives of the Tibetan refugees in India’s Mainpat settlement, which consists of a monastery and seven camps of approximately 200 people each.

Resources can be scarce in the Tibetan refugee camps, and Mainpat is no exception. In a unique interdisciplinary venture, the NAU group’s members completed an engineering project, provided dental care, and studied the community to determine its needs and how to meet them sustainably.

Engineering a brighter future

One of Mainpat’s most pressing issues is its lack of a reliable source of electricity. At present, power is taken from an Indian power grid in a dangerous and primitive way. Each morning, someone climbs up the distribution tower and uses bare wires to turn the system “on” and distribute power to the camp.

Alan Francis, an assistant professor in the Department of Construction Management, said the current situation is untenable and the power system’s reliability and safety are in question. Though Southwest Windpower donated two wind generators which were installed on the campgrounds several years ago, the camp has lacked a system to carry the wind-generated power to its facilities.

Francis and some students, with assistance from private and industry donations, went to Mainpat to change all that. They created a system backbone—what Francis calls “the guts”—to interface with the wind generators and distribute the power to the camp facilities. They also added solar panels and a battery bank system to provide backup power.

For Lief Kirsch, a mechanical engineering major graduating in May 2012, the trip represented a chance to serve while exploring a personal passion.

(I went) because I like to help people, and they need help,” Kirsch said. “And it’s something that interests me because I’m really interested in green energy, how it works and how it gets put together, in an urban setting. It’s very interesting. It opens your eyes to all these questions you never knew you had.”

Francis said the time spent at Mainpat gave students a window into the real-world effects of their work. Beyond simply doing hands-on work, the students gained a high level perspective into their discipline.

“I think this project is an opportunity for the students to apply what they’re learning in the classroom, in a very real way,” he said. “Not only real in a way that it’s actually equipment and actually a renewable power system, but in a situation where this system has the capacity to make a big impact for the energy users.”

Promoting dental health

Another problem the Mainpat community faces is a lack of dental care; dentistry hasn’t reached the settlement in thirty to forty years. Dental hygiene students and faculty traveled to India to provide the best care possible while overcoming challenges like the settlement’s unreliable power supply, which limits the tools they can use.

For Angel Lombardi, a dental hygiene major who plans to graduate in May 2012, using her training to help while visiting another part of the world was worth giving up a comfortable holiday break at home.

I really like traveling,” she said. “I’ve traveled a lot, and that combined with the opportunity to evaluate the people and their oral health, and help them with doing cleanings and any dental work that’s needed.”

For Lombardi, missing her family and friends or celebrations over the holiday break wasn’t a problem. The giving spirit of the season is what drove her to provide aid.

“What better thing to do over Christmas than share something with someone else that they can’t get for themselves?” Lombardi asked. “And that’s what I wanted to get from it, to help someone.”

Before leaving for the trip, Ellen Grabarek, project director of the university’s Dental Outreach Program, said the demand for dentistry in the settlement would likely far outpace the ability of the group to provide it, making the sustainability of the care another concern. Education will be vital to the settlement’s future dental health.

 “I’m hoping to leave something behind that helps them to have healthier oral health, and not create a worse problem, since we’re trying to be sustainable,” Grabarek said. “[We want to] do things that will carry through, like teach things that will work for them later and don’t create this demand that we can’t meet later.”

Creating sustainable solutions

The challenges a community like Mainpat face are varied. A substantial part of finding solutions to those challenges will involve making them sustainable for the future.

Jason Lowry, a sustainable communities master’s student who will graduate in May 2012, said visiting and learning about other parts of the world was only part of the allure of the trip for him. Researching the community’s needs provided a much-needed base for other, future projects.

“(We hoped) to bring an in-depth study and begin to figure out what their needs are with respect to water, food systems, energy systems, building systems, economic systems, what have you, and then what are culturally relevant ways for us to work with them, to really begin to deal with some of the issues that they may or may not have,” Lowry said.

Samson Swanick, a fellow student in the sustainable communities program who plans to graduate in summer 2012, said knowledge of the culture’s past is vital to unlocking the door to its future.

“We looked at the history of development, and the past, present, and future of sustainable communities,” Swanick said. “We looked at the history of development and where it comes from, because in order to do this project you have to be very conscious and critical of the history this project is being sprung from.”

Learning from each other

FacultyThe College of Health and Human Services’ dean, Leslie Schulz (far left), said the work the students and faculty did at Mainpat took a different approach than most humanitarian efforts, which generally focus on one discipline.

“My hope is that we learn from each other, because if we were all dental hygienists, then we wouldn’t learn what engineers do,” she said. “Or with sustainability and next year hopefully in business—what all the professions do and how they can contribute to the situation—I’m hoping is a big thing that the students will bring back from this.”

Time constraints meant only representatives from the Colleges of Health and Human Services, Social and Behavioral Sciences, and Engineering, Forestry, and Natural Sciences were able to attend this year. Schulz said she hopes to bring in people from other fields for future trips.

“Hopefully next year we’ll have business, education, and arts—all of us,” Schulz said.

More information

Find out more about the NAU-Mainpat Interdisciplinary Global Learning Project.