Students Spend a Humanitarian Holiday Break in India
For some, the holiday break means recovering from finals,
skiing, or spending time with loved ones. For others, it’s an opportunity to
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
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
The 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.