'Intense' service projects let students give back

Candida Crasto had a good job lined up with an oil company when she graduated in 2010 from the University of Dayton, Ohio, with a degree in chemical engineering. But first, she wanted to take an immersion trip that she had missed with the university’s ETHOS program.

ETHOS stands for Engineers in Technical, Humanitarian Opportunities of Service-Learning, founded in 2001 to take the engineering curriculum beyond the classroom. The program at the Marianist university is described as a “transformational experience,” and Crasto was so transformed by her experience in Ethiopia that she declined the job offer without knowing what she was going to do next. “I knew that there would be opportunities to work in appropriate technology without having to make a lot of money,” she said.

A few stops later, Crasto, now 26, is the university’s adviser for chemical engineering and manager of the ETHOS program.

“You can use your faith to understand that there is a need in the world and that there is a moral obligation to achieve social justice,” she said. “You are looking at what you have and what you have been given, and so I have the responsibility to improve the lives of others. That’s fostered in faith, and that’s fostered in ETHOS.”

On-the-job formation

The program sends students to 19 different countries to participate in 38 sponsored projects and locations.

Anthony Whaley, a senior at the University of Dayton, disposes organic waste while on a service trip in Cameroon. Courtesy photo

In Ethiopia, Crasto worked on improving the design of the “injera rocket stove,” which runs on the “rocket principle” for cooking injera, the staple flatbread. She went to India to work with another stove manufacturer two months after she returned from Africa. Improving stoves, she realized, was crucial.

“Indoor air pollution kills a woman or child every 20 seconds,” she said. “It’s the fourth leading cause of death in underdeveloped countries.”

According to the Global Alliance for Clean Cook Stoves, 3 billion people worldwide cook food and heat their homes on traditional cook stoves and open fires. That causes 4 million annual premature deaths to smoke exposure, and tens of millions become ill. Crasto also learned of the deforestation caused by inefficiently burning wood and how traditional stoves were so time consuming that women spent four to 10 hours a day cooking.

“ETHOS lets you experience things in an intense way,” she said about what she witnessed and learned. “So it’s only a natural extension of the Catholic tradition to give back.”

Crasto arranges opportunities for engineering students to use their knowledge in projects like solar panels for electricity, solar cooking, purifying water and wind turbines. Senior Anthony Whaley, 22, of Ironton, Ohio, is majoring in environmental geology. He went to Cameroon in Africa to finish an ETHOS project started in 2008. Before that, the villagers were hauling creek water that was downhill from latrines. Students built a reservoir and three biosand filters (water treatment systems) in the first stage, and Whaley’s group made 21 more that filtered out contamination from pesticides.

“I learned that everyone has an innate human dignity within themselves,” he said. ‘It’s amazing how similar their lives are to ours. Parents want to make an income to feed their families and send their children to school so that they have more options. That’s fairly similar to us, and it puts everyone on the same playing field, that everyone has dignity and everyone deserves the compassion of the Gospel.”

God in others

Melissa Taylor, 22, of Willowick, Ohio, graduated in December and is now a master’s student in mechanical engineering. Her ETHOS project was in Nicaragua where she and three other students installed solar panels in local homes. They also built a hand-washing station at a primary school to replace a hand-cranked pump at a well. There already was a concrete water storage box near the school, but it had fallen into disrepair.

“We worked with another engineering student from Canada, and we cleaned it, filled cracks and made a lid to cover the top so that it wouldn’t fill with debris,” she said. “We ran some piping and connected it to a gutter system to collect rain water. Then there’s a bowl to scoop out water for washing hands, and that water is caught to use with mops, then to wash buckets, and then to water ornamental plants.”

The people were welcoming, and they were interested in being self-sustaining and in improving their community.

“Before I went there, I really thought it would be difficult to bond,” Taylor said. “I met several young women about my age, and we hung out, and I really got to know them. They wanted to get an education, and they wanted to get good jobs — very similar to the friends I have here. I learned so much about the world and what’s really important. I saw God in a lot of people, and they just embodied what it’s like to be Catholic.”

Maryann Gogniat Eidemiller writes from Pennsylvania.

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