Explore →

Engineering a Better World: High School Graduate Works with Engineers Without Borders

Jemesia in Ghana
Jemesia in Ghana

Jemesia Jefferson has had more than a few first-time experiences into the last 12 months. After graduating from Thomas Jefferson High School, she packed her bags for Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in Terre Haute, Indiana. While carrying a full class load at Rose-Hulman, she had the opportunity to visit Midwest cities like Chicago and complete a trip abroad with Rose Hulman’s Engineers Without Borders to support a civil engineering project in Gomoa Gyaman, a Ghana community in Africa.

“I thought I was prepared for Rose-Hulman, but I totally underestimated the experience. The most difficult parts were adjusting to the 10 week classes and the cold weather. I had to go to class in the snow, and that was definitely a new experience for me," Jemesia said. By the Spring, her team had returned from Ghana and things were finally slowing down. However, there were still lots of things to do including completing paperwork and presentations to prepare.

The purpose of the Engineers Without Borders project was to improve satiation in the Gomoa Gyaman community. “Open defecation is a problem. Germs spread and people can easily get sick. We want to prevent that as much as possible”, Jemesia said. Prior to the trip, Jemesia’s team had to remotely assess topics such work schedules, materials, and how they would complete social assessments. After a 10 hour flight in March, Jemesia and her team arrived in Ghana. The first thing that struck her was the lack of building codes. “There were no standards for the height of a stair step. The steps on the stairs to our hotel were different heights. You take something like that for granted in the US.” By the end of the first day, she was captivated by the beauty of the country, the liveliness of the villages, and the friendliness of the residents. Once they reached Gomoa Gyaman, Jemesia and her team guided the residents in the process of building and maintaining public latrines with hand washing stations. These buildings were sited in quadrants around the village. Once the first latrines were completed, the villagers planned to take on the responsibility of building additional structures to improve sanitation.

Along with gaining engineering experience, Jemesia’s team grew through their personal understanding of communication and life skills. The majority of rural Ghanaians speak local dialects, so communication often depended on body language, hand signals and a few English words. Interestingly, while the language barrier were often a problem, Jemesia felt the hardest part of the project was delegating roles among their team.  She credited her experiences on the FIRST robotics team at Thomas Jefferson High School with helping to introduce certain project management and communication concepts that benefited the project. “Being a part of a FIRST robotics team showed me what I was capable of. FIRST taught me how to think innovatively and creatively, share ideas and work as a team, and not be afraid of giving my input,” she said. “I feel that my experiences as a member of the robotics team at Thomas Jefferson definitely helped us work through some of our leadership issues, as well as helped us find economical solutions to last minute challenges while we were in Ghana.” In a village where few homes have running water and many people use common wells, the community is now on its way to an improved and sustainable solution that will dramatically improve the lives of its residents.

Jemesia’s commitment to service is nothing new. As a high school student, she worked with younger students at Richmond City summer camps. While in Ghana, she visited a local high school where she spoke with young women about how Science and Engineering has changed her life. “I think the best thing about my trip was visiting the school. In a country where women aren’t always encouraged to think about a career, it was nice to show these girls that they could find a better life by staying in school and excelling in Science and Math”, she said. This summer, Jemesia is a Title One tutor for Richmond students, and she hopes to join Engineers’ Without Borders for another trip before she graduates. Interestingly, Jemesia’s passion for finding sources for clean water complements the efforts of FIRST robotics founder, Dean Kamen’s Slingshot prototype. When asked where her travels might take her next she said, “I would like to travel to South America and work on a clean water initiative there.”

To learn more about Engineers Without Borders, visit ewb-usa.org.
To learn more about FIRST programs in Central Virginia, visit firstchesapeake.org

Article by: Leighann Scott Boland