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Club bridges faith, academics

Christian Myers | Tuesday, January 31, 2012

A link between the Catholic identity of Notre Dame and the study of engineering may not seem obvious, but Notre Dame Students Empowering through Engineering Development (ND SEED) bridges the gap — literally and figuratively.

Professor Tracy Kijewski-Correa, a faculty advisor for ND SEED, said the group’s mission of building bridges in impoverished countries blends Notre Dame’s religious affiliation with students’ academic interests.

“In engineering, it has not always obvious how the University’s Catholic identity fits,” she said. “This project gives students an opportunity to live out the University’s mission in their field. Infrastructure changes lives.”

ND SEED works with the non-governmental organization Bridges to Prosperity to find locations in need of their help. Bridges to Prosperity identifies locations around the world where communities are isolated by impassable rivers or gorges, and then partners with corporations and other groups to build the necessary bridges. The ND SEED program is the only university-based partner of Bridges to Prosperity.

ND SEED has built three bridges in Central America, specifically in Honduras, Guatemala and Nicaragua, over the past three years. This year’s project is underway in San Francisco, Nicaragua.

This year’s team visited the site during fall break and completed a preliminary design. They have also arranged for the purchase of all necessary materials in the area around San Francisco. The students will focus on the final design of the bridge this semester.

Senior Jacqueline Gilhooly said raising funds for the bridge, which can cost upwards of $20,000, has been one of the most challenging aspects of the project.

“Raising the funds was the most difficult part so far,” she said. “We had to track the money from a lot of different sources.”

Kijewski-Correa said the six-week process of building the bridge, which takes place after graduation, is a different experience every year.

“It is a custom project each year,” she said. “No two bridges and no two communities are the same.”

Kijewski-Correa said ND SEED focuses on Central America because the student teams can be designed to have Spanish speakers. Additionally, she said the close proximity offers lower travel costs than other developing areas of the world.

“We get to choose the region. Central America is better for travel costs,” Kijewski-Correa said. “If we had to fly an entire team to Africa a few times a year, we would run out of money.”

ND SEED spent the past two years working with the International Summer Service Learning Program (ISSLP) in the Center for Social Concerns. Kijewski-Correa said the Center for Social Concerns helps prepare the students for interacting constructively with the local community.

The amount of community involvement in the project varies, Kijewski-Correa said. This year the student team will be hosted in a local school building and native workers will help build the bridge.

“The students will work every day side by side with local masons,” Kijewski-Correa said.

Students are selected for the program by an application and interview process. At first, Kijewski-Correa said, only Civil Engineering students could participate, but in the last two years Mechanical engineering students have also gotten involved.

“For the students, it is their only exposure to a truly comprehensive engineering project,” Kijewski-Correa said.

Kijewski-Correa said every spring seven students are selected for the program. The team formed begins a new project in the fall semester of the next academic year.

“We choose students with an open mind and a positive attitude about working in the developing world, those who understand the concept of empowerment,” she said.

Kijewski-Correa said it is difficult to fully prepare students for the project.

“It’s like nothing they’ve ever experienced before,” Kijewski-Correa said.

Gilhooly said ND SEED offers her a unique way to exercise her academic interests and her interests in service.

“I chose Civil Engineering in order to help people out,” she said. “This is the best way I know of, within the Engineering Department, to help people.”

Senior Eric Herbert said he was attracted to the program because of its fusion of service with academics.

“I wanted to join since I was a freshman,” he said. “I’m drawn to the chance to help people and use what I’m learning in school to do it.”

Senior Rachel Guinsatao said the program has given her a broader understanding of the applications of her major.

“I applied because I do a lot of service, but I was looking for something that would completely immerse me,” she said. “It has been great to experience first hand how practical my engineering degree is.”