Santa Clara University

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Professor, Teach Thyself

Nicaragua
Ahmed Amer and Jim Reites, S.J., operate a rope pump system in Nicaragua. Photo: Godfrey Mungal

A primary focus of Santa Clara University is to promote students’ global understanding and engagement. To this end, School of Engineering Dean Godfrey Mungal organized a faculty trip to Nicaragua in September. “Last year,” he said, “a group of us spent two weeks in China learning about the vast changes occurring there. In contrast, this year’s trip to Nicaragua, the second poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, brought us in touch with poverty, hope, appropriate engineering, and new opportunities for international collaboration.”

The group of 16 faculty members, 1 advisory board member and 2 Jesuits toured the capital city Managua and several other parts of the country. One of their most striking experiences was the visit to the Managua City Dump, where hundreds of families live in abject poverty and eke out their existence amid the filth of rotting garbage, but where hope is found in programs providing schooling and meals for children. They also spent time at a Matagalpa coffee cooperative where a biodigester converts unused portions of the coffee bean into methane gas for sustainable energy. A trip to Universidad Centroamericana (UCA) opened new avenues for collaboration between three of the SCU engineering faculty members and their Central Americancounterparts.

“I don’t think one can competently speak about globalization without some first-hand experience of the needs and realities of the world as a whole,” said Aleksandar Zecevic, Associate Dean for graduate studies and professor of electrical engineering; “This trip reminded me of why I chose engineering and teaching as my profession. As engineers, we should not only understand how to provide solutions for the developing world, but also what compels us to make this a priority,” he continued.

Many of the professors spoke of being inspired by the trip. “It infused me with ideas on how I can bring social awareness to my civil engineering classes, “ said Tonya Nilsson; “I now see ways I can incorporate assignments that require the students to gain greater awareness of the difficulties that millions of people live with each day.” Ahmed Amer, associate professor of computer engineering was profoundly affected by witnessing “the good in people, and their potential to overcome the harshest circumstances which stands in sharp contrast to the poisonous, can’t-do attitude that leads to excuse-making and apathy.” Reflecting on this experience, professor Amer added thatit “has led me to rethink targets for some of my own work on reliable distributed computing systems. How can what I do well help the most?”

“The Jesuits exercise a ‘preferential option for the poor,’” said Mungal; “Bringing our faculty face-to-face with the realities of the developing world reminds us of how important our work as educators and engineers really is, and instills a renewed enthusiasm for sharing with our students the Jesuit mission to serve others.”