Carnegie Mellon University
April 11, 2013

CEE Students Travel to Rwanda for Spring Break Service Project

CEE Students Travel to Rwanda for Spring Break Service Project

Urukundo resident, Kenniya plays with Ruari Egan (CEE '13) and her sunglasses, an accessory that the children were especially interested in playing with.Urukundo resident, Kenniya plays with Ruari Egan (CEE '13) and her sunglasses, an accessory that the children were especially interested in playing with.

Over spring break, a group of CEE undergraduates went off the beaten path and traveled to Rwanda for a unique service project. Junior Ibironke Ogunye and seniors Jule Carr, Ruari Egan, Sophie Grodsinsky, Agnes MarszalikJuan Medinaand Hermona Tamrat spent a little over a week in a small, rural community an hour outside of the Rwandan capital of Kigali. They were part of a sixteen-person team of CEE and Mechanical Engineering students led by Mechanical Engineering Professor Robert Reid and PhD candidate Iryna Zenyuk

The CMU group was tasked with re-building an aging basketball court frequently used by the community. “The first part of the project was breaking up the concrete with pickaxes and transporting it away in buckets,” Medina explained. “Then we laid the rocks for the foundation and helped mix the concrete and move it for the finishing.” The students collaborated on the project with members of the community, and communicated with them through local interpreters. “The people in the community were welcoming and really glad that we were there,” Egan commented.

Mama ArleneDuring their trip, the students lived at Urukundo Village, a children's home run by a Pennsylvania native affectionately known in the area as “Mama Arlene.” Urukundo Village includes a working farm, preschool, and library, and currently houses 47 children. “The really neat thing about this place is that it’s truly a home for children,” Medina said. “The children stay as long as they need, and then they move on with their lives when they’re old enough.” When the students weren’t working on the court, they offered their assistance with the children and even made time for a safari in the sprawling Akagera National Park. 

The project had its fair share of challenges. Electricity and running water were not always available, and the students quickly learned to make the most of occasional rainstorms. However, they were able to apply knowledge gained from CEE courses to make the construction process go smoothly. Ogunye explained that frequent group projects helped prepare them to work efficiently as a team, saying, “The first day we had trouble completing a particular task quickly, but the next day we were able to develop a more efficient system to make the most of such a big group.” Medina also noted that many of the topics discussed in Professor Burcu Akinci’s International Collaborative Construction Management course were relevant to their project, saying, “That class taught me to be more aware of cultural differences that can influence a project’s success. For example, the perception of time might vary between cultures; we were talking to Mama Arlene one day about not having enough time for something, and she laughed and told us, ‘In Rwanda, you always have time.’”

Each of the students took away something special from the experience. Egan described the group’s half-day trip to the Kigali Genocide Memorial Center as “eye-opening,” saying, “Something like 96% of the people above the age of 20 in Rwanda have had first-hand contact with violence. We worked with a lot of people in that age group, so that was really sobering to consider.” The Rwanda trip was Ogunye’s first time out of the United States, and partway through the trip she and two other students had the chance to travel to the National University of Rwanda to assist Mama Arlene with a service project. “A student had asked Mama Arlene to help improving the sanitary conditions for women at the university, so I was able to sit in on their meeting,” she explained. “That was a really enlightening experience because it showed me a different aspect of Rwanda.” Ogunye now plans to reach out to the people she met at the university to participate in future service projects. 

The trip was jointly funded by the College of Engineering and the Mechanical and Civil & Environmental Engineering departments, with the students covering their remaining travel costs. Some of the CEE funds for the trip were made possible by alumni donations. Medina expressed his gratitude to the department, saying, “If it weren’t for the additional funding from CEE, I wouldn’t have been able to go.” 

So did they have time for a game of basketball on the finished court? “No, the concrete was still wet,” said Egan, smiling ruefully. “We’ll have to go back for that.”

(Urukundo Village's blog post about the project and our student's service trip)

Group Photo CEE students take a break from observing giraffes in Rwanda's Akagera National Park. L to R: Sophie Grodsinsky (CEE '13), Agnes Marszalik (CEE '13), Hermona Tamrat (CEE '13), Juan Medina (CEE '13), Ibi Ogunye (CEE '14), Ruari Egan (CEE '13), and Jule Carr (CEE '13).
Basketball Court A view of the basketball court at Urukundo that the students helped re-build
Group working on court CEE students and Rwandans dig up the court's original concrete and rock foundation. Pictured: Ibi, Sophie, Agnes, Alex Battaglia (ECE '13), Matt McGinn (DC '13), Glenn Philen (ME '15) and Etienne. Etienne grew up at the Urukundo Home for Children, and will be attending CMU Rwanda this fall to get his Masters in ECE. 
Student Playing David, an Urukundo resident, plays at his school, the Cyakabiri Pre-School. 
Student with children CEE students play with the children outside of the guest house. Pictured: Hermona, Ibi, Ruari, Meera Lakhavani (MSE '14), Jule, and Agnes.