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Student organization bridges gaps internationally

2/3/2017 2:44:01 PM

Above: Vivian Wong (left) and Yanbing Wang pose on the completed bridge

CEE at Illinois students have access to a wide variety of student organizations, many of which have an international focus. One of these is the student chapter of Bridges to Prosperity (B2P), an international non-profit organization that builds footbridges over impassable rivers for isolated communities. Student chapters of B2P work with faculty advisers, B2P staff and professional engineers to raise money for building materials, design bridges, and travel to construct them in poor communities around the world.

Most of the members of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign student chapter of B2P are CEE students, including 12 who are officers. The president of the chapter is Vivian Wong, a senior undergraduate student from Toronto who is pursuing a B.S. in Civil Engineering with a concentration in Structural Engineering. She is also completing a minor in Architectural Studies. 

“When I first heard about Bridges to Prosperity, I felt like its mission perfectly combines my interest in international volunteering work, as well as my background in civil engineering,” Wong said. “With Bridges to Prosperity’s projects, I can bring my engineering skills to places where they need it the most.”

The chapter’s most recent project took place in the summer of 2016 and involved construction of a cable suspension bridge for the community of Patzula, located in the mountains of southern Guatemala. The Illinois chapter joined with the University of Toronto’s chapter and — after a period of collaboration that included finalizing the bridge design and logistics — the students spent three weeks on site, monitoring worker safety and assisting with hands-on construction. Students helped with surveying, digging the excavation, building steel rebar cages, casting steel cables, decking and fencing. The bridge was completed in 18 days, and was celebrated with a party that brought together the B2P team, community members, and municipal officials.

Wong said that helping a community in need was a truly great experience, and that improving the lives of others made all the effort worth it. Her experience in Guatemala impacted her so strongly that it affected her decision on a career path. Armed with first-hand knowledge of the importance of civil infrastructure in developing countries, she has decided to pursue a graduate degree in Civil Engineering and focus her research on designing solutions for various global challenges and improving the infrastructure in developing communities to make them more accessible, safe and resilient.

“Furthermore, an increasing number of professionals now do work across many countries and continents,” she said. “Therefore, it is beneficial for us to enhance our understanding in different cultures and customs across the globe. Doing international projects like this helps improve our global skillset, which is becoming increasingly important in the professional world.”

Yanbing Wang — CEE at Illinois student from China and Internal VP & Treasurer, Bridges to Prosperity — recounts some of her experiences:

“The local community threw a huge party for us during the inauguration day. The mayor and the school principal came to the party as well. It was a lot of fun because the people there were very [welcoming to] us, very polite and open-minded.

“I felt so satisfied to see that the children in Patzula were very excited during the bridge inauguration day that they jumped onto the bridge and ran back and forth. I think that was the moment that I decided to dedicate to this organization and do more to benefit the communities.

“I never felt this way in my life before because I haven’t had that much volunteering experience, but seeing the bridge being completed and local people are actually benefitting from it, I felt powerful that I can actually make others’ life better. I also felt a huge responsibility on my shoulder that a lot of people in the world today are in need of some infrastructure service that maybe we as university students can help to make possible.

“The hands-on experience definitely helps me with coursework because I had a great exposure to construction management, material use and technical design skills.”

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