How Impact Work Changes As You Grow Up

GLA alum Emma Oriol continues to make impact and global citizenship a focus of her life as a college freshman

Name: Emma Oriol
Hometown: West Hartfort, CT
Grade in school: College freshman, University of Washington
GLA program: Guatemala: Children of the Maya™ (2016)
Claim to GLA fame: Volunteering on an organic farm in the South of France through WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms), joining her university's chapter of Engineers Without Borders

This week we sat down with Emma Oriol, alum of GLA’s Guatemala: Children of the Maya™ program, to talk to her about what she’s been up to since her trip in 2016. Turns out, she’s done a lot: She’s traveled more, volunteered on an organic farm, narrowed down her college area of study and is applying to take a leadership position with her university’s chapter of Engineers Without Borders. We’re not surprised, as Emma wowed us with her answers in her applications for traveling with GLA two years ago:

“Joining GLA was not a decision I made lightly. I have researched service program trips for about 8 months to find the perfect one. There were so many seemingly similar trips that I had to carefully compare… My motivation was to find a trip that would allow me to see and experience new parts of the world and help the communities I visited. The community service allows me to not just help the people of Guatemala but to get to know them.”

Emma shows she’s constantly evolving her knowledge of international aid work and impact, even in the short time that she’s been a college student, and that she’s still just as reflective about how she can harness her skills to create sustainable change. Read the interview below as she shares with us her new experiences and learnings.

Emma volunteering at an elementary school in Guatemala with GLA

Hi Emma! Tell us about Engineers Without Borders. Out of the hundreds of student organizations on your campus, what drew you to it?

"Engineers Without Borders is a national organization, and I’m part of the chapter on the University of Washington campus. The members of this group are mainly prospective engineering students and people interested in working in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields. Communities around the world apply for aid with Engineers Without Borders, in the form of engineering projects that empower communities to meet their basic human needs. After applications are approved, Engineers Without Borders will then connect with NGOs and local leadership in the communities to create a workable plan for designing and building the needed resource. Projects usually take a few years, from identifying the need, going on evaluation trips to examine the site, creating the design and implementing it.

"I originally entered college as an Engineering major, with the knowledge that the underlying thing I wanted to do was provide international aid of some sort. I also love science, math and technology and wanted to harness those interests and skills to create change. Now I’m considering switching to Public Health, but can still be part of Engineers Without Borders. I’m applying to be on the Fundraising board!"

What's the biggest challenge working with communities through Engineers Without Borders? I imagine it can be quite difficult working remotely to design something that will be implemented on the ground later?

"Yes, it is difficult! As you might expect, there are many cultural differences and language barriers in this kind of work. You have to be in constant communication with your partners, which we do using WhatsApp and phone calls. While designing the project, remembering that we are trying to use our skills to help this community, not force our own wants on them, is critical, especially when we’re working remotely on a challenge taking place miles away.

"Right now we’re trying to design a fish hatchery in Guatemala that redirects the flow of water. We have to be creative, resourceful when we go on evaluation trips and have backup plans for when we do bring our design to the community for building and implementation. We have to be prepared as well, and talk to the communities about what materials are available.

"Something that’s often overlooked is being certain we’re aligned on what maintenance and upkeep the community members are able and willing to do. If the community isn’t committed to the project, it’s not going to be successful."

The University of Washington chapter of Engineers Without Borders is currently working on plans for a community center in Guatemala, which will supply the community with a sheltered area to use as a market space, play area for the children and much more. You can make a small donation to help fund this project here.

What kind of buy-in does the community have? Are they required to have some responsibility that helps them with feeling ownership of the finished resource?

"Yes, the community is required to contribute somehow, usually in the form of labor. This helps contribute to the project’s long-term success and them feeling invested in maintaining it."

Did GLA prepare you for some of the challenges of development and ethical questions that are asked with aid work like this?

"Yes, GLA definitely exposed me to the challenges of development while I was in Guatemala. I think GLA and the organizations you choose to partner with do a good job of asking the community what they need, rather than just inserting aid."

What's the difference between doing impact work as a high school student and as a college student?

"As I go through college and life, I’m gaining many more specialized skills that really aid with my ability to help communities. In high school, you often just show up and do what you can. In college, I’m developing skills to meet more specific needs and fill certain roles. I’m also finding a community of people that share similar goals as me."

Emma hopes to join the Engineers Without Borders team visiting the project site in Guatemala a few years from now, when she's an upperclassman.

Thinking back on your GLA experience, did you have a favorite memory?

"Oh, so many! One of my memories that stands out was seeing a volcanic eruption while at our community service project. My peers and I ran over immediately to the best viewpoint to stare at the eruption in awe! The Guatemalan students, however, thought our reactions were funny. It’s such a normal occurrence to them, to have a volcano erupt in their backyard.

"Besides that, just playing with the kids at our school during recess, making up games with them, giving piggyback rides. The language barrier was not an issue."

The students on GLA's Guatemala program rush over to watch a volcanic eruption (a safe, routine occurrence in Guatemala!) near their community service site.

What about any special relationships you developed and still maintain, or mentors that influenced you?

"I met one of my closest friends on my GLA trip—Michelle Zhang [Editor’s note: our Ambassador of the Year in 2016! What a power duo!]. Michelle is definitely someone I look up to; she’s independent and currently living in Mexico doing a gap year before college. She’s done all kinds of interesting things since high school and our GLA experience. Michelle and I actually went to the South of France to work at an organic farm last summer, before I started at the University of Washington. We did it through WWOOF. I also keep in contact with a lot of other people who were on my trip as well."

[Editor’s note: WWOOF is an international association that connects people who want to live and learn on organic farms with organic farmers who want to share their lifestyles, teach new skills about sustainable food production and ways of living, and welcome volunteer help.]

How did travel in general change your perspective on life?

"Travel taught me to be more open-minded and less judgmental. Seeing how people have different priorities in life was eye-opening and put things into perspective. Sometimes the most important need to fill for the students in Guatemala was simply shelter or clean water. People are quick to judge, but it’s important to see the full story. Understanding that story before making a decision is something I try more than ever to do now."

(left) Emma at the community service site in Guatemala, (right) Emma and other GLA students take a boat ride on Lake Atitlán

What advice would you give students who are preparing for their first GLA or travel experience?

"I would just say to step outside of your comfort zone. Sign up for the trip, even if the friend you were counting on doesn’t. If you need to, find a way to raise money for it, and don’t be discouraged. I worked a part-time job after school to be able to afford tuition. My time at GLA is still influencing my present, and the decisions I make today."

Ok, now for some fun questions! What's your mantra for 2018 (if any)?

"My resolution was actually to go vegan! I took a class on global warming last quarter and learned about how industrial agriculture and meat production takes a huge toll on the environment. The meat industry is a major contributor to climate change. Shifting our diets and educating the public on adjusting our eating habits could slash greenhouse gas emissions and ward off additional deforestation."

What's next on your bucket list (experience or destination)?

"I would love to go back to Guatemala in the next few years. I also have a goal to study abroad during college. I want to travel to Israel through birthright, and I’m looking into scholarship opportunities that help fund global learning opportunities. I’m actually overwhelmed by the different paths available to take! Preparing for my GLA trip actually taught me that knowing how to independently research your opportunities is a very useful skill to have."

What's the impact you want to have on the world?

"Wow, that’s a loaded question! I think the impact I’d personally like to have is to work closely with one community, even if it’s a small group of people. I know I’d like to bring development to the sphere of public health, making resources more accessible to different communities. Sometimes having the deepest impact on a few individuals is more significant than trying to change the world."

The University of Washington Engineers Without Borders team is currently raising money for their projects in Guatemala: Building fish hatcheries, water delivery and incubation systems, and a multi-purpose community center. You can donate to their fundraiser here.