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Building HOPE in a Pandemic
UH EWB Chapter Shifts Its Focus Home

Building HOPE in a Pandemic

Story by Stephen Greenwell
Photography and Videography by Jeffrey Lautenberger

LIKE MANY ORGANIZATIONS, THE UNIVERSITY OF HOUSTON STUDENT CHAPTER OF ENGINEERS WITHOUT BORDERS FACED NEW CHALLENGES WHEN THE GLOBAL PANDEMIC STRUCK IN EARLY 2020. HOWEVER, RATHER THAN DELAY OR POSTPONE THEIR EFFORTS, THE INVOLVED STUDENTS HAVE FORGED AHEAD AND LOOKED INSTEAD TO HARRIS COUNTY FOR A NEW COMMUNITY PROJECT FOR THE 2020-21 ACADEMIC YEAR.

UH senior Akintunde “Tunde” Sowunmi and sophomore Emma Bond, the president and vice president of the organization, said they had to pivot once travel restrictions were put in place. The group was originally planning to complete work on their three-year project to improve water distribution in Nicaragua, before switching to the Project HOPE Center.

The center started as a small hospitality building for those experiencing homelessness in 2016. It became a nonprofit resource center in 2018. The center, which has seen more than 3,000 people within its first three years, is located in Spring, about a 30-minute drive from campus. The goal of EWB-UH, under the guidance of the Community Engineering Corps, is to transform the second floor of the building into a dental clinic.

According to EWB-UH Vice President Emma bond, the group has about 20 members working on the project for the project HOPE Center. The prominent leadership involved is:

Ethan Rodriguez:
Project Chair

Aaron Lopez,
The Dow Chemical Company
:
Professional Responsible
Engineer in Charge

Martin Roman:
Project Lead

Cheyenne Goodson:
Design Lead

Christa Robbins:
Communications Lead

“We wanted to find ways to still engage our members and be productive,” Bond said. “The Project HOPE Center was a perfect fit for our goals and experience as an org. We felt it could also provide a nice focus contrast to our Water Distribution Project in order to attract a different set of members. Additionally, with social justice concerns rising across the country, we wanted to engage our members locally and be able to offer them our experience, and to help communities who are underserved across Houston.”

Sowunmi described his passion for engineering as a manifestation of his desire to help people, which led him to joining EWB. When he was young, growing up in a Nigerian-American household, he always had an interest in fixing things — he rewired his family's cable box, for example. After his first two years of college, his passion for the field of engineering bloomed after a trip to Nigeria.

“As an engineer, you're kind of taught to just learn how to fix things or learn how to be a problem solver,” he said. “And I felt like this was a problem that wasn't just for somebody with that traditional engineering mindset to solve. It invigorated my purpose as an engineer, and that was to enact change.”

Bond said she got involved with EWB as a freshman, noting that volunteering and giving back was something she felt strongly about.

“When I was an incoming freshman at UH, I knew I wanted to get involved with an organization on campus and did some research into all the engineering orgs on campus,” she said. “I saw we had an EWB chapter, but I couldn't find any outreach for them, like social media, a website or even email. Finally, toward the end of that fall semester, there was a flyer in my freshman engineering class for their first general meeting. I attended the meeting and saw they had officer positions available, including Public Relations. I thought, that is a position they really need. I got the position and spent the rest of that year building an online presence for our org.”

She added, “I've done civil engagement activities essentially much of my whole life. Volunteering has always been a large part of my family and my experience growing up, so it felt natural to continue that into my personal collegiate career.”

Building HOPE in a Pandemic
Top and middle row: EWB-UH members on pad site for HOPE project; Bottom row: EWB-UH visiting a dentist office for HOPE project research

The pandemic has forced EWB-UH to shift the target of their work, but According to EWB-UH Vice President Emma bond, the group has about 20 members working on the project for the project HOPE Center. The prominent leadership involved is: Ethan Rodriguez: Project Chair Aaron Lopez, The Dow Chemical Company: Professional Responsible Engineer in Charge Martin Roman: Project Lead Cheyenne Goodson: Design Lead Christa Robbins: Communications Lead 60 PARAMETERS Spring 2021 University of Houston Cullen College of Engineering 61 also understandably, Sowunmi said it caused the group to reevaluate what was happening in their immediate area, especially after the killing of George Floyd.

“The way that the pandemic made me feel, coupled with how the unarmed killing of a Black man made me feel, and the Black Lives Matter protests, as well as the Breonna Taylor murder, I was just like, this can't be,” he said. “I deleted social media for a little bit. It was just a lot for me … In my mind, we were trying to do whatever we can for the community in Nicaragua. But there are problems going on in our backyard. There are problems going on in our own city. So what can we do to tackle it? And it just so happened, I came across the Hope Center, directed by this great man, Dr. Bob Butler.”

Committed to developing and empowering leaders to engineer sustainable solutions to support underserved communities, in the City of Houston and internationally.EWB-UH Mission Statement

The pandemic has also changed how the group has operated internally, according to Bond.

“Since we were in the middle of rebranding and rebuilding our org when everything hit in March, we were experiencing a lot of 'firsts' virtually,” she said. “We did all our officer interviews, project team management, board meetings and events virtually. Most of our officers and members have never even met in person, so this feels like our 'normal' now.”

While the pandemic has changed how they're operating as a group, Bond said that as a sophomore, she's thankfully been able to adjust her own goals.

“Personally, I've been fortunate enough not to have been severely impacted by the pandemic,” she said. “I was supposed to travel abroad to Costa Rica for an internship this summer as well as attend a learning abroad program in Ghana, and both these events have been rescheduled to summer 2021, which even now seems unlikely. I'm lucky enough to have been able to experience a mostly normal freshman year, and I hope that by my graduation in 2023, I will get to graduate in person. I still have a while to figure out exactly what I want to do. For now, I'm interested mainly in the aerospace industry as it makes its comeback with the SpaceX Falcon 9. I'm interested in obtaining a master's degree at some point, but it really depends on when is the right time.”

Sowunmi noted that he had difficulties finding his stride when he first started college. As a result, he wants EWB-UH to continue to grow, and to provide an outlet for members to get passionate about the field and the opportunities it presents.

“During our last general event of the semester, we had somebody from ExxonMobil talk about the importance of an engineering degree, and how some people may feel that they are tied down by engineering,” he said. “At the end of the day, through an engineering curriculum, you're learning how to learn. You can be put in a myriad of different positions, different roles in different industries, and still flourish, as long as you understand your mission, understand your task, and care about what you do at the end of the day. That's the type of organization that we're trying to kind of cultivate. As long as you are trying to be innovative in trying to be that change that you want to see, you can make it and be that leader that we definitely want to see in the future.”

Building HOPE in a Pandemic
EWB-UH members from left to right: Martin Roman (Hope Center Dental Clinic Project Lead), Muniba Mir (PMEL Co-Lead), Ben Yusuf (Secretary), Kyle Rorison (Treasurer), Ethan Rodriguez (Project Chair), Braulio Garza (Public Relations), Lupita Herrera (Water Distribution Project Design Lead), Emma Bond (Vice President), Tayo Okeowo (Web Developer), Roxy Hernandez (Member), Akintunde Sowunmi (President).

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